Chronic Illness and Mental Health: Bitter, Not Better?

Having a chronic illness is often times difficult for both the patient and their family, especially if a family member is also their caregiver. Chronic illness can affect children or adults, causing fear, anger, frustration, stress and feelings of hopelessness. Unlike a cold, the flu or chicken pox, a chronic illness is a long lasting health problem that persists for more than 3 months. Common chronic illnesses include diseases such as cancer, arthritis, asthma, diabetes, COPD and Parkinson’s.  There are different from acute illnesses, such as multiple sclerosis, which are characterized by recurring episodes followed by relapse with periods of remission in between. Chronic illnesses cause about 90% of deaths in the US, and in 2002 chronic conditions such as heart disease, cancers, stroke, chronic respiratory diseases, and diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, mental illness and kidney diseases were listed as 6 of the top ten causes of mortality in the United States.

How does a chronic illness impact your mental health? You might experience guilt about making demands on other family members. You may feel frustrated by your inability to do things for yourself, you may experience guilt due to changes in the family dynamic, you may feel stressed if your illness impacts the families financial health, you may suffer from  depression due to side effects from medication or the illness itself or your self-esteem and self-image may change. It can be helpful to have a trained professional to discuss these issues with; family members are often not able to fully process these emotions.

The families of the chronically ill may need assistance coping with the mental health aspects of their loved ones illness. Regardless of the type of chronic illness, the family dynamic will change. Each person reacts differently to the situation, stress management techniques and coping skills work differently for each personality type and family.  For couples, the primary care giver may also be carrying the burden of primary wage earner. Not being able to be there all the time can great feelings of guilt by the caregiver or abandonment by the chronically ill partner.  Relationship-based coping skills help the couple focus on maintaining the quality of their relationship as part of the care giving process. Each partner needs to try to manage their own stress and strive for balance. Instead of seeing the chronic illness as one person’s problem, the illness is treated as a problem that impacts the core relationship. This is an area where an experienced couple’s therapist can aid with the process.

For families with a chronically ill child, the situation becomes more complex, as the entire family is affected. Siblings of chronically ill children are at risk for a variety of problems. Children with chronically ill brothers or sisters may exhibit behavioral problems, lower self-esteem, and shyness, have a hard time making and keeping friends, experience problems at school, anxiety, depression and anger. Siblings may face additional responsibility and reduced physical and emotional availability of their parents. They may experience disruptive and conflicting emotions, such as jealousy, shame and guilt. Parents commonly find these situations difficult to manage, and the sibling feels further isolated. A therapist with a background in Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), family and children’s issues can be help work through these issues.

If you’re experiencing any of these issues related to a chronic illness in your relationship or within your family, please take the time to schedule an appointment with one of our therapists. Our goal is to provide you with the tools needed to cope with complex issues a chronic illness can create.