Be Aware of the Close Link Between Mental Health and Chronic Disease

Mental health disorders are not defined by gender or age. It has been predicted that only about 17% of  U.S. adults are in a state of optimal mental health and that 20% of both children and adults in the U.S. will experience a mental condition at some point in their lives. These are staggering numbers! Where can we look to help improve this situation? The answer may lie in the crossroad between mental health and chronic disease.


Among various causes, chronic health conditions are found to have tremendous influence on mental wellbeing. There are strong connections between physical health and mental health. Results from a screening survey conducted by Mental Health America (MHA) found responders with a chronic condition either had or were at risk for mental health issues:

  • 73% of those with cancer
  • 75% of those with heart disease
  • 79% of those with chronic pain
  • 74% of those with diabetes
  • 80% of those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

MHA has several helpful resources on its website, including, among other things: 


The National Institute of Mental Health acknowledges the connection between mental health and chronic disease. They advise patients with chronic disease to be aware of the duration for which they experience feelings of sadness or lack of hope. These feelings are especially common among those who are newly diagnosed with a chronic/long-term disease. A newly diagnosed person may need some time to adapt to their diagnosis and treatment. However, if sadness or inability to carry on with daily routine persists for more than a couple of weeks, it may be a sign of depression. 

Typical symptoms of depression include:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or empty mood
  • Feeling pessimistic
  • Feeling irritable or restless
  • Losing interest in hobbies and activities
  • Feeling fatigue
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping or waking up early
  • Weight changes or appetite changes
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

When developing the treatment plan, doctors should pay equal attention to the physical illness as well as the person’s emotional status.

When developing the treatment plan, doctors should pay equal attention to the physical illness as well as the person’s emotional status.


Treating depression in a chronic disease patient can improve overall health and quality of life. Better physical health may in turn have a positive effect on emotional and mental well being and relieve symptoms of depression. 

The relationship between mental health and chronic disease is a feedback loop, one influencing the other
Danyelle Fay on PMDD, a physical disease with emotional components

When considering the relationship between mental health and chronic disease, the Cleveland Clinic recommends trying to treat the chronic condition first. The exception is if the depression is a separate problem and needs an independent treatment plan with antidepressants and psychotherapy. 

Psychotherapy usually involves sessions with a licensed professional who helps accomplish behavioral changes by helping focus on emotions, understanding problems and ideas that lead to depression, and help the individual regain their sense of control.


The high cost of treatment and a lack of trained health care professionals create barriers for mental health care. Mental health issues if left undiagnosed and/or untreated can lead to worse physical health. So, for someone with a chronic condition whose depression is left untreated, their chronic disease—be it diabetes, hypertension, stroke, heart disease, cancer, arthritis, etc.—may worsen. This in turn can feed back into their mental health status, creating a vicious cycle that may be hard to break.

If you are a chronic disease patient or a caregiver of someone suffering from a chronic condition, speak to your care provider about integrating emotional and mental health care in the treatment plan.

Additional Resources

1.     Issues with access to mental health care:

2.     Finding help:

Surabhi Dangi-Garimella

Surabhi Dangi-Garimella, Ph.D. is a biologist with academic research experience, who brought her skills and knowledge to the health care communications world. She provides writing and strategic support to non-profit groups via her consultancy, SDG AdvoHealth, LLC.

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