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The Complex Relationship Between Chronic Disease and Mental Health

Both chronic diseases and mental illness are common in the United States. Over half of U.S. adults (nearly 60%) have at least one chronic disease. Similarly, almost half of U.S. adults will experience a mental illness at some point in their lifetime.

With both chronic disease and mental illness being so prevalent, we should examine how these health challenges interact. The link between chronic disease and mental health is complex and reciprocal, with research indicating that chronic disease can be a trigger for mental health challenges and that mental health challenges are a risk factor for chronic disease.

Depression is a common mental health challenge for those living with chronic disease, especially after receiving an initial diagnosis. Individuals who are already dealing with physical symptoms of their chronic illness are often left to handle the emotional impacts of a new, often life-altering diagnosis alone. It is common for persons receiving a new chronic disease diagnosis to be overwhelmed, fearful and uncertain; to feel isolated or alone; and to grieve a lost identity or planned future.

Persons living with chronic disease might also suffer from increased anxiety. Chronic disease management often involves balancing multiple medical appointments, making significant lifestyle changes, adjusting to new medications, and continuing to manage the needs of daily life.


READ: Discover New Ways to Support Your Loved One with a Chronic Health Condition


It’s important for individuals with a chronic disease to manage both their physical and mental health, not just for increased wellbeing, but because poor mental health can lead to worsening symptoms of existing chronic disease or to the development of new chronic disease.

Just as physical health impacts mental health, the reverse is also true: mental health can impact physical health. Although the exact mechanisms of this relationship aren’t clear, there are several issues that might be at play. Individuals with a mental illness may not have access to resources needed to care for their physical health, such as health insurance or a primary care provider. Additionally, some mental illnesses can interfere with an individual’s ability to care for themselves on a consistent basis, which could include forgetting to take or only sporadically taking prescription medications.

There’s also new research that shows physical symptoms of mental health conditions (such as increased inflammation, changes in heart rate and stress hormones, and metabolic changes) may contribute to an increased risk of medical disease (National Institute of Mental Health).

Individuals living with chronic disease or mental illness can work to develop a self-management strategy to cope with the daily realities of their chronic disease or illness. This strategy could include finding additional social supports, learning stress management and relaxation techniques (like mediation), or learning how to self-monitor symptoms and gather necessary medical data (such as blood pressure) at home.

Additionally, both healthcare providers and mental health professionals should develop holistic treatment plans that address all symptoms and account for all co-occurring diseases or illnesses.

Long-term management of mental illness should not be secondary to chronic disease, just as treating chronic disease should not be secondary to managing mental illness. Instead, we should consider physical and mental health as a complementary pair and address both, simultaneously, when possible, for better long-term health outcomes.

If you or a loved one are struggling with mental health challenges, professional help is available. Valeo’s Crisis Center, 400 SW Oakley Avenue in Topeka, is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for walk-in mental health emergencies. In case of a behavioral health crisis, contact 988 or the Valeo 24-Hour Crisis Line at 785-234-3300.

                            by Mikki Burcher, Fundraising Specialist + Mental Health First Aid Instructor


Valeo Behavioral Health Care



Crisis Services           

400 SW Oakley, Topeka, KS  66606

24 Hour Crisis Line: 785-234-3300


National Suicide Prevention Life Line

Call or text 988 anytime 24/7/365


Shawnee County Suicide Prevention Coalition



Family Service and Guidance Center  (18 and under)

325 SW Frazier, Topeka, KS  66606

24 Hour Crisis Number: 785-232-5005


Healing after Loss to Suicide Group  (HeALS)

Sandy Reams – Group Facilitator