The Mental Struggle Behind a Chronic Diagnosis
A chronic disease diagnosis can be profoundly devastating, leaving many patients frustrated and struggling to mentally prepare for the challenging road ahead. This overwhelming news usually means patients will have to alter their routines and lifestyle to focus on treatment, despite struggling to come to terms with their unfortunate circumstances. Although mental health may seem secondary to one’s physical health in this situation, neglecting emotional distress can play a vital role in worsening a patient’s condition. Making the connection between physical and mental health could help us better understand a patient’s symptoms, their response to treatment, and overall experience.
Chronic diseases are responsible for the majority of deaths and disability in the United States today, making them a primary source of illness nationwide. It’s estimated that by 2025, approximately half of the U.S. population will be diagnosed with a chronic condition like arthritis, diabetes, cancer, or heart disease. Although many people disregard mental health disorders as a chronic disease, research has shown that depressive disorders may alter the immune system and have increased the rate of mortality among patients. Approximately 133 million Americans have at least one long-term illness, and when combined with depression they are essentially living with two different, yet serious, conditions. Identifying this issue early on can help medical professionals determine the source of a patient’s symptoms and connect them with a trained psychologist to develop a specific plan for treatment and recovery.
Depression Prevails Among Patients
Although symptoms of depression are often associated with the initial shock of a medical diagnosis, it’s important to recognize when a loved one has become mentally drained and continues to exhibit signs of emotional distress. Friends and family must understand that these patients are forced to address many life-altering issues, such as changing their lifestyle, what their future plans may be, and coping with the idea of death. This huge change can sometimes manifest a state of depression and denial as they mourn the life they led before their diagnosis.
While a patient’s condition or specific treatment may cause changes in their behavior or mood, if they are experiencing a lack of appetite, nausea, chronic fatigue, consistent pain, or anxiety, they could very well be battling an underlying mental disorder. Research has found that those suffering from a long-lasting medical condition combined with depression tend to experience heightened symptoms, and the average lifespan among depressed patients is, on average, 30 years shorter than those who are mentally sound.
Cancer is one of the leading causes of death globally, but the effects of this disease sometimes wreak havoc on a patient’s mental state. Research suggests that 2 out of every 10 patients develop depression, especially if they have been diagnosed with an advanced condition or have received a poor prognosis. This can become a reality for industrial workers who have been unknowingly exposed to asbestos, a carcinogenic mineral now recognized as a leading cause of occupational cancer around the world.
Although workers can go a lifetime without detecting symptoms of exposure, employees in high-risk fields may find themselves diagnosed with an aggressive disease like mesothelioma decades after inhaling asbestos fibers. This critical diagnosis can leave patients feeling completely out of control, but prioritizing their mental health could help stabilize their symptoms and condition. For example, a promising study conducted in 2016 evaluated 179 lung cancer patients and found that symptoms of depression were linked to an increased rate of mortality despite the stage or severity of cancer. Furthermore, patients who overcame their disorders exhibited the same mortality rate as those free of depression, suggesting that complications can be reversed, improving outcomes for cancer patients. Research at the Stanford University of Medicine also supports this ideology after studying the impact of depression on women with metastatic breast cancer. Their findings concluded that patients diagnosed with both breast cancer and depression had an increased risk of cancer recurrence and mortality.
Coping With a Lifelong Illness
Although a chronic disease may trigger mental illness, patients can learn how to effectively cope with their diagnosis in a number of ways. First and foremost, admitting symptoms and identifying depression as early as possible can motivate a patient to stick to their treatment plan and, in turn, improve their condition and quality of life. If stress and anxiety began around the same time as starting a certain treatment, the patient may need to alter their dose or eliminate the medicine altogether. Patients who are struggling with the emotional burden associated with their diagnosis need as much love and support from their friends and family as possible. This is a great way to reduce the stress related to treatment, but can also help those close to the patient process and come to terms with their situation. Studies have shown that participating in group therapy can also result in a better survival rate. For example, breast cancer patients who joined a support group acquired 18 more months to live than those who opted out.
Antidepressants are available for those with severe signs of mental struggle, but success cannot be guaranteed and every case is different. Fortunately, there have been improved outcomes when antidepressants are combined with psychotherapy, a process in which a patient confides in a licensed professional. Participating in these sessions may help them determine the source of their depression, learn constructive ways to deal with their feelings of loss, and regain a sense of hope moving forward.
The healthcare industry tends to put mental health on the back burner, but shedding light on the synergy between physical and mental stability could empower chronic disease patients to take care of their emotional wellness and, in turn, improve their overall health and well-being.