How Does Chronic Illness Affect Mental Health? Great Lakes Psychology Group
Chronic Pain & Illness

How Does Chronic Illness Affect Mental Health?

How Does Chronic Illness Affect Mental Health?

Having a chronic illness is oftentimes 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 chickenpox, 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 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, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, mental illness, and kidney diseases were listed as 6 of the top ten causes of mortality in the United States.

The Link Between Chronic Illness and Mental Health

How does chronic illness affect 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 one’s 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 caregiver may also be carrying the burden of the 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 caregiving 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, shyness, difficulty 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.

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