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Mental health and living with a chronic illness

You wake up in the middle of the night. Your heart is racing, you can’t think straight, and the only way to bring yourself back to normal is to dig into a bag of lollies or smash down a soft drink.

It’s something you’ve dealt with for many years. It’s both unpleasant and familiar enough for you to have taken steps to minimise how often it happens. And yet, despite all that preventative effort, it still occurs semi-regularly, usually when you least expect it.

Your life is filled with countless complications that people without your condition never worry about. Many of them seem trivial: doing more physical activity than you expected, having your period, consuming just a few more alcoholic drinks than normal the night before, or eating a snack or a bigger lunch. They and many more can cause complications.

There are far more serious consequences too. If you were to get pregnant there’s a risk of severe medical complications. And always hanging over your head is the knowledge that your condition can be life-threatening if left unmanaged. You were once rushed through the emergency ward because of impending fatal side-effects of your illness.

You will probably live with your condition for the rest of your life. You have a whole bunch of daily and weekly rituals to manage it. If you neglect them, even for a single day, your condition can deteriorate. The end result can potentially lead to coma or death.


Living with chronic illness

The above is a genuine lived experience account of life for a 38-year-old woman (let’s call her Louise) from, inner-city Melbourne. You may have guessed that she has diabetes and that the complications described above are the effects of hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar). Often called a hypo or a low, it is one of the most common consequences of living with diabetes.

Louise was diagnosed with Type I diabetes in her early ’20s. Since then, her condition requires her to monitor her blood sugar (something which can be affected by food, drink, exercise and even hormonal levels) and inject insulin several times a day. If left unmanaged, complications can quickly set in.

Louise lives with what is commonly revered to as a chronic disease or chronic illness. Although the details of her diabetic symptoms, warnings signs, and ways of managing the condition may differ to those of other diabetics, her story nonetheless has many things in common with tens of thousands of people in northern, western and central Melbourne who also live with chronic illness.


Depression, anxiety and chronic illness

A few years after her diabetes diagnosis, Louise’s GP also diagnosed her with anxiety as well as depression. It’s not an uncommon story. In fact, a characteristic of people living with chronic illness is that they have a higher likelihood of also having a diagnosable mental health condition.

You might be surprised at just how common it is. Conditions considered chronic diseases other than diabetes include asthma, arthritis, cancer, heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, chronic pain, dementia and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Beyond Blue defines chronic physical illness as something that “can be managed, but… cannot be cured. People who live with a chronic illness have a greater risk of developing anxiety and/or depression.

Given that a chronic illness is long-lasting and can affect almost every level of daily life, it is understandable why some people are more likely to develop depression or anxiety. That’s because the effects extend to beyond pain and discomfort.

For example, asthma is a condition that affects breathing. While this can interfere with a person’s capacity to engage in physical fitness, this can also adversely affect someone’s ability to enjoy and participate in social activity. Asthma can also interfere with sleep.

Chronic pain is another example of a condition that affects more than just physical wellbeing. Not only is ongoing physical pain highly draining (not to mention the side effects of pain medication, if they are prescribed), but chronic pain can also affect other aspects of wellbeing, from a regular work routine to libido levels.

People with chronic disease are also at risk of suffering from loneliness and isolation, further increasing the possibility of poor mental health.

In addition, some people with chronic disease also face stigma and prejudice, adding to the frustration and emotional pain. For example, people diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome may experience isolation or disbelief from their friends or families.


Self care and chronic illness

Living with a chronic illness can affect your outlook on life. When life is dominated by forces that negatively affect your capacity to do basic things, it is understandable that you can start to feel down.

For people with chronic illness, many ‘traditional’ ways of dealing with it may not be viable options. For example, regular physical fitness — long linked to improvements in mental health — may not be practical for people recovering from the effects of heart disease.

Nonetheless, many of the ideas for better managing mental health still apply. One of most widely recognised and beneficial of these is talking about it.

Quite simply, talking it out is often one of the best things you can do. If it’s an option, consider talking it out with a friend or family member.

Another option is to discuss how you’re feeling with a professional CAREinMIND counsellor. They are available 24/7 and are trained to listen and help you work out ways to cope and, ultimately, help you feel better.


Concerned? Talk to a professional counsellor on 1300 096 269. It’s free to people in north, western and central Melbourne and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Want to know where else you can get help? Find out how to access additional community support.


The CAREinMIND blog is delivered by On the Line. The views in each post do not necessarily reflect those of North Western Melbourne Primary Health Network.