How chronic illness affects a person’s risk of depression

Freshman U.S. Sen. John Fetterman’s recent and ongoing health challenges are bringing attention to connections between chronic health conditions and depression, which experts say often go hand-in-hand.

Last week, Fetterman’s office announced that the 53-year-old would undergo treatment for clinical depression at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, months after the Pennsylvania Democrat suffered a stroke.

Fetterman’s diagnosis of atrial fibrillation and cardiomyopathy — heart conditions that can increase the risk for stroke and heart failure — compound what one of his aides described as Fetterman’s off-and-on coping with depression throughout his life.

“There certainly is a significant amount of depression following brain injury of any kind,” said Dr. Carl Thisler, an adjunct professor of psychology and psychiatry at The Ohio State University.

“That’s well known, well documented.”

Medical studies show that depression can be triggered in cases of chronic illness, such as cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and asthma, among others.

Approximately 9 to 23 percent of patients fighting chronic illness have been diagnosed with depression, according to a study published in 2017 by researchers at the Institute of Medical Sciences in India.

Meanwhile, other medical research suggests that the presence of pain heightens a patient’s risk of becoming depressed.

Challenges like having a body part removed or having suffered from mental illness in the past can compound the issue, Thisler said.

“There’s a major sense of loss to the person’s body and to their psyche,” Thisler said.

For people that have a history of depression, being diagnosed with a chronic illness can be increasingly difficult, said Dr. Rosalind Dorlen, a clinical psychologist in Summit, N.J., who is also on staff at Overlook Medical Center.

“It maximizes the possibility that you’re going to be depressed,” she said.

Experts say that it’s important for people that have been diagnosed with a chronic illness to prioritize self-care and developing resilience by building connections with others, which can be used to cope with a serious medical condition.

Volunteering, exercise and playing a sport or musical instrument can be helpful tools in dealing with stressful aspects of a disease.

“Sometimes people can have a sense of feeling defective,” Thisler said. “Some activity they become proficient in, or even moderately good at, tends to help.”

The idea is to find something that gives a person a sense of new purpose, he said, especially if their body feels like it’s under attack.

Previously, Thisler had a pacemaker, a device used to regulate the heart, put into his body.

As a result, he’s taken up slalom water skiing and said the sport has helped his mental health.

“It certainly makes me feel a lot better about myself when I am able to do a little bit better each time that I go,” he said.

Still, it all boils down to an individual’s specific needs and circumstances, Thisler argues.

“There isn’t a one size fits all.”

The Reckon Report.
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