Last week, a reader wrote to report that she was getting ready for a surgical procedure which she hoped would improve her acid reflux. She asked if it was common to be depressed before the operation. The answer is that depression is one of the most common, and potentially dangerous, complications of every chronic illness.
In the general population, about one in 10 of us will experience depression at some point in our life. That risk increases dramatically with chronic illness, with about one in three individuals with a chronic illness experiencing depression. It makes sense. People with a chronic illness must adjust to the demands of the illness (or in this case the surgery), while at the same time not feeling well at least some of the time.
If you are living with a chronic illness and think you are experiencing depression, your challenge is two fold: First, you and your health care team have to decide if your depressive symptoms are non life-altering – and are just a normal, temporary reaction to a new illness. As I wrote in my last SharePost, many families are able to adjust to a chronic illness over time by improving their outside resources in order to compensate for their new demands.
Second, you and your health care team have to determine if what you are experiencing are symptoms of depression or are physical symptoms related to your chronic illness. If this is the case, a different course of treatment must be found to improve your physical symptoms related to your illness. In other words, depressive symptoms may include changes in appetite or difficulty sleeping. If you have acid reflux, these same symptoms may be present if you are not being adequately treated for your acid reflux and may not be indicative of depression.
In summary, what we know is this: depression and chronic illness go hand-in-hand about 30% of the time. This illness-related depression may be a very natural, temporary condition in response to the illness. The symptoms of depression may mirror those of the illness, so it may require an astute physician or therapist to tease out the appropriate treatment for your symptoms. In any case, depression should not be ignored. Not only can depression be a debilitating condition on its own, but it can also make the chronic illness worse.
If you suspect you are experiencing depression, ask your health care provider if he or she is familiar with the co-existence of depression and chronic illness. Their answer should be a very non-judgmental and quick “yes” If not, it may be time for a second opinion.
Part II of this blog next week will address chronic illness and depression among caregivers.