Asthma and Mental Illness: Is There a Link?

  • There's been quite a bit of press devoted to the dangers of depression and suicide lately in regards to asthma. But, of course, a lot of what you read uses sensationalist tactics to grab attention and readers. You can't always believe everything you hear and see in media.


    However, there ARE some connections between asthma (and its treatment) and depression, anxiety, and suicide. So, I thought I'd spend time today outlining the facts about these connections.


    Stress & Anxiety


    First of all, there's no question that asthma can be a stressful disease to cope with. And that stress can sometimes worsen asthma symptoms, so it can become a bit of an endless cycle, with stress making asthma worse and vice versa.

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    Because asthma is a chronic illness that never goes away completely, the stress of dealing with it can lead to anxiety. Anxiety, in and of itself, isn't always bad; in fact, a bit of anxiety can be rather motivating. But when it interferes with your ability to manage your condition effectively (or live your life), then anxiety becomes problematic.


    If you're having trouble sleeping or concentrating, are irritable and don't feel like being with friends and family, or no longer feel hungry, then anxiety is interfering with our life and should be addressed. If it isn't, it can quickly escalate into panic attacks, which may also lead to asthma attacks.



    Anxiety may also advance to depression. About 20% (or 1 in 5) asthma patients also suffer from depression, so if you're in that number, you can see you're not alone. Depression can interfere with daily life and prevent you from caring properly for yourself. If it keeps you from taking your asthma medicines on schedule, you may begin to feel even worse, both physically and mentally.


    If depression becomes severe or is untreated or unrecognized, feelings of helplessness and despair may worsen as well. As you become more and more isolated and depressed, it's not unusual for thoughts of suicide and escape to begin to creep in.




    Suicide is the most extreme form of distress that could occur, and also the most unusual. However, a recent study published in the May 2008 issue of the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, suggests that suicide may be linked to asthma. Not only that, but people with asthma who have thoughts of suicide are also more likely to carry through with it, or at least with an attempt.


    In addition, a drug used to treat asthma and allergies called Singulair, has recently been linked in a few cases to suicide attempts. So, definitely if you are taking Singulair and start to experience thoughts of ending your life, you are at risk.


    Anxiety, Depression, & Suicide Are NOT Inevitable


    So, does that mean that you need to worry about this happening to you? Of course not! The fact is, most of us will never experience more than the ongoing stress of dealing with a chronic illness or maybe the occasional bout of anxiety. And stress and intermittent "freak outs" can happen even if you don't have asthma.


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    My purpose is just to alert you to the fact that asthma can sometimes be difficult to cope with and if you start to feel overstressed, anxious or extremely blue, then it's time to get help. Because you don't have to keep feeling that way -- even if your asthma is challenging to get under control.


    Prevent It From Happening If You Can


    People who live healthy lives are less likely to experience feelings of anxiety and depression. Make healthy food choices, keep your weight in a healthy range, get plenty of sleep, exercise every day for at least 30 minutes, laugh often and nurture a circle of loved ones, and you'll probably find that it's not too hard to keep sad feelings at a distance.


    If Anxiety and/or Depression Do Strike, Act Quickly


    Don't let the "bad" feelings spiral out of control. Ask for help. Sometimes, just reconnecting with family and/or friends is enough. Other people benefit greatly from talking to people going through the same things as they are. So adults with asthma may want to talk with other adults with asthma, parents of asthmatic kids with other parents, etc. If you can't find a local support group through your American Lung Association or hospital, there are many support groups online, including here at


    If this kind of informal help is not enough, you may need professional help. There's no shame in asking for help, especially if you're starting to think about suicide at all. Talk with your doctor about getting a referral, or seek out counseling on your own. But don't wait. Your health is dependent on you taking action.



    Find Resources from our Depression site:


    Are You Depressed?

    Depression or Sadness: How do you Know?


    Resources When You're Feeling Suicidal

Published On: July 11, 2008