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The Link Between Mental Health and Chronic Conditions

The Link Between Mental Health and Chronic Conditions

While we don’t often equate physical health with mental health, the two are definitely linked. In fact, chronic illness is closely associated with the development of depression, and depression is closely associated with the development of chronic illness. Thus, diagnosis and treatment of both depression and chronic conditions are essential to maintaining one’s quality of life. This article will explore how the two are related, while emphasizing the importance of managing depression.

What is a chronic condition?

A chronic condition refers to a disease that lasts longer than one year. Usually, these conditions require frequent medical attention while also impacting one’s daily life. Common examples of chronic conditions include diseases like cancer, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, HIV/AIDs, pain, heart disease, thyroid disorders, multiple sclerosis, and epilepsy (1).

Can chronic diseases lead to mental illness?

As you may imagine, having a chronic disease can take a toll on your daily life. Chronic diseases are associated with increased disease burden, which includes frequent medical visits, high healthcare costs, and multiple medications. Additionally, chronic diseases directly impact your health, adversely affecting your ability to function daily and lowering quality of life.

Knowing this, it’s no wonder that chronic disease is linked to depression. Take diabetes, for example, which is a very common chronic illness affecting as many of 37 million people in the US. Diabetic individuals are actually at two to three times higher risk of having depression compared to healthy people.

And it doesn’t stop there. Depression is linked to other chronic conditions, usually those causing disability, pain, and social isolation. The CDC projects that those with Parkinson’s disease, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s have a 51, 42, 17, and 11 percent chance of depression, respectively (2).

Can mental illness lead to chronic disease?

While chronic disease can lead to depression, the flip side is also true. Depression can also cause chronic illnesses in a number of ways. For example, depression may:

  • Make healthy choices challenging, such as exercising and eating well, because of symptoms such as fatigue and low energy
  • Make accessing medical care difficult, preventing prompt treatment and early intervention
  • Intensify feelings of pain
  • Affect the way the body functions, causing low blood circulation, stress hormone abnormalities, and increased inflammation (1)

What are the symptoms of depression?

If you suffer from a chronic disease, you are at higher risk of depression. Thus, knowing the signs and symptoms of depression is essential. Depression can manifest in a variety of ways, but commonly people with depression experience:

  • Depressed mood
  • Low pleasure or interest in day-to-day activities
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of emotions or feeling
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Low energy
  • Suicidal thoughts

It is important to note that many of these symptoms overlap with signs of chronic illness. For example, things like low appetite, fatigue, and sleeping troubles are all frequently experienced in certain chronic conditions. Thus, it may be difficult to differentiate if these symptoms are because of depression or the chronic condition itself (3). This overlap can also delay depression diagnosis, as individuals may falsely attribute these feelings to their physical disease as opposed to mental illness.

How do we manage depression?

Early detection and management of depression is essential to minimizing its impact and preventing suicide risk. If depression is being caused by a chronic disease, treatment of the chronic disease will be the first step. If the chronic medical condition is well-managed and symptoms are relieved, an individual’s depression will likely get better.

However, a lot of times depression will warrant more intensive treatment. This usually involves a combination of antidepressant medication and therapy. Antidepressant medications restore balance to certain chemicals in the brain, helping to improve mood. Thankfully, there are several types of antidepressants on the market, providing a variety of options for patients.

Additionally, therapy is a great option, used either alone or in conjunction with medication. Counseling helps individuals to work through life’s difficulties, such as chronic illness, and understand how one’s behaviors and emotions contribute to their depression.


In summary, chronic conditions and mental illness are intimately linked. More specifically, certain chronic illnesses can cause depression, while depression can also lead to chronic illness. Thus, it is essential to prioritize your mental health in addition to your physical health.




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