woman with chronic illness in pain

Managing Mental Health with a Chronic Illness

If you suffer from a chronic illness, you will know how it affects your physical health. But did you know that it can also affect your mental health?

Illness can affect your mental health in many ways. For example, it may cause you to feel depressed or anxious. It may even make you feel isolated.

In fact, living with a chronic illness can be debilitating both physically and mentally. Apart from the toll it takes on your body, it can also affect your ability to cope with psychological and emotional stress.

It’s a challenge almost 50 per cent of the Australian population faces daily.

According to the latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics more than 78 per cent of all Australians had a long term health condition in 2020-21 with almost half (46.6 per cent) reporting at least one chronic condition.

What is Chronic Illness?

A chronic illness is a condition that lasts or has lasted at least three months and is expected to continue indefinitely.

The illness may have persistent effects ranging from mild to severe or, in some cases, both.

Common features include:

  • Complex causality, with multiple factors leading to onset
  • A long development period, for which there may be no symptoms
  • A prolonged course of illness, perhaps leading to other health complications
  • Associated functional impairment or disability

Examples of chronic illness include:

  • Cardiovascular conditions (such as coronary heart disease and stroke)
  • Cancers (such as lung and colorectal cancer)
  • Mental disorders (such as depression)
  • Diabetes
  • Respiratory diseases (including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  • Arthritis, osteoporosis and other musculoskeletal conditions
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Oral diseases (such as tooth decay and gum disease)

Prevalence of Chronic Illness

While nearly half of all Australians have at least one chronic health condition, up to 20 per cent of people reported experiencing two or more chronic conditions.

According to a national health survey, women aged 18 years and older were more likely than men to have at least one chronic condition (56.5% compared to 49.5%).

The most prevalent chronic conditions experienced in Australia in 2020-21 were:

  • Mental and behavioural conditions – 20.1%
  • Back problems – 15.7%
  • Arthritis – 12.5%
  • Asthma – 10.7%
  • Diabetes – 5.3%, comprised of Type 1 diabetes (0.6%) and Type 2 diabetes (4.5%)
  • Heart, stroke and vascular disease – 4.0%
  • Osteoporosis – 3.6%
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) – 1.5%
  • Cancer – 1.6%
  • Kidney disease – 1.1%.

Mental Health Challenges with a Chronic Illness

While mental and behavioural disorders are themselves chronic conditions, having any chronic illness can make you more likely to develop mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.

You may feel sad or stressed after receiving a serious disease diagnosis or when trying to manage ongoing pain. Having to face limits on what you can do, the uncertainty about treatment outcomes and the future can make it challenging to adapt to your new reality.

However, if your sad feelings continue for more than a few weeks and affect your ability to carry on with daily life, you may have depression.

depressed woman, laying on bed looking sad

Some symptoms may include:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or low mood
  • Feeling hopeless or pessimistic
  • Feeling irritable, easily frustrated‚ or restless
  • Feeling helpless
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, or feeling slow
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering things or making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause that do not ease even with treatment
  • Suicide attempts or thoughts of death or suicide

Depression may be a common complication of chronic illness, but it does not have to be a normal part of having a chronic illness. Effective treatment for depression is available and can help even if you have another medical illness or condition.

Tips to Manage Life with a Chronic Illness

Managing life with a chronic illness can be a challenge. An approach that includes both mental and physical health care can improve overall health.

Research has shown that treating depression and chronic illness together can help you better manage both your depression and chronic disease.

Ways to manage include:

  •  Acceptance. Accepting that you have a chronic illness is the first step in managing it. Find out more about your illness, what you can expect and ways you can manage symptoms to make your life easier.
  • Appreciate yourself. If you are living with a chronic illness, you are still the same person you were before you had the illness. You may have to adjust your lifestyle, but you are still a wonderful person. Be kind to yourself and embrace what you can do rather than focussing on what you’ve had to change.
  • Get involved. Chronic illness can be an isolating experience. The best way to combat isolation is to get involved with other people who have similar illnesses. Look for a chronic illness support group in your area and research what’s available to help you better manage your condition.
  • Take care of yourself. It’s important to take care of your body and mind as well as your emotions. Making healthy lifestyle choices and looking after your mental health and wellbeing can improve or result in better management of your chronic condition.

Healthy lifestyle choices to improve chronic conditions:


Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Chronic Illness

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be helpful in managing chronic mental health problems and many of the long-term symptoms of chronic physical illnesses, including chronic pain.

CBT is a structured talking therapy that can help you accept and adjust as best you can to your chronic condition.  CBT focuses on the ways in which targeted changes in thoughts, feelings, and behaviours can lead to positive, lasting growth.

Treatment involves changing negative thought patterns and learning a variety of skills to improve quality of life and disease management.

This may mean working towards accepting your limitations, adjusting to the unpredictability of your chronic illness, and helping you pace yourself to overcome the challenges of daily life while still maintaining activities that most help you feel positive and fulfilled.

Find Out More

To find out more about how CBT therapy can help you live a happy life while dealing with chronic illness-related mental health challenges, talk to our team today.

You may want to ask us a question, request an appointment or find out more about the psychologists you can see at our clinic.

Not sure if we can help you? Please email us or call one of our friendly admin staff. We’re happy to answer any questions you may have and talk about whether therapy can assist you.