Depression and Chronic Illness: Q&A With Merely Me

Patient Expert

People who have chronic illness have a higher rate of depression than the general population. We spoke to Merely Me, a previous HealthCentral contributor who lives with multiple sclerosis, about chronic illness and depression.

HealthCentral: You have experienced depression in connection to chronic illness. Please tell us about that.

Merely Me: Three years ago, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). I went through all the typical grief reactions of shock, denial, anger, sadness, and I am still in the process of acceptance. Anytime I experience a relapse or have a lot of MS symptoms, my feelings of depression increase.

HealthCentral: Some of the symptoms of depression and autoimmune diseases are similar (e.g. fatigue, fuzzy brain, etc.). How do you tell the difference?

Merely Me: Symptoms caused by an autoimmune disease can exacerbate the feelings of depression. And likewise, depression can worsen the symptoms of your illness.

If you are experiencing symptoms of depression for two weeks or longer, it may be time to talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. Symptoms of depression include the following:

  • depressed mood on most days
  • no longer taking pleasure in activities that you used to enjoy
  • significant increases or decreases in appetite and/or weight
  • insomnia or excessive sleepiness
  • feelings of agitation or a sense of intense slowness
  • loss of energy and a daily sense of being tired
  • sense of guilt or worthlessness
  • inability to concentrate
  • recurrent thoughts of death or suicide

HealthCentral: People talk about grieving in connection to getting a diagnosis of chronic illness. What does that mean?

Merely Me: When you have been diagnosed with a chronic illness such as rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis it is normal to go through a period of grieving what you feel you have lost, such as a life without this disease, certain abilities, or your self-image. For me, I grieved over losing my lack of worry over my health. I can tell you from my experience that time and knowledge of your disease helps. Talking to others who also have your disease can give you the inspiration to realize that you too, can manage and learn to live with your chronic illness.

HealthCentral: Cognitive therapy can be especially helpful in adjusting to life with a chronic illness. What is it?

Merely Me: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy which proposes that if we change the way we think, we can change the way we feel. There is much research to show that this type of therapy is effective for dealing with chronic illness.

HealthCentral: If money is tight, are there inexpensive or free options for counseling?

Merely Me: Many people are faced with the situation of either not having insurance or not having the funds to pay for mental health services. There are other options for receiving both services and/or medications. Remember that you may have to be persistent and make many phone calls. But don't give up trying.

HealthCentral: What are some of the other ways you can get support?

Merely Me: One way to find support is right here on sites such as HealthCentral’s site for chronic conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, depression, and more. As well, you can find support in our active Facebook communities, such as the RAHealthCentral Facebook page.

There may also be local mental health support groups in your area. The National Alliance on Mental Illness lists local state organizations on its website.

HealthCentral: Living with illness and pain and their effect on your life can make you very depressed, even suicidal. What can you do if you start having suicidal thoughts?

Merely Me: Share your thoughts with a loved one or your doctor. If this is an emergency, call 911 or get yourself to the nearest emergency room. You can also call a suicide hotline. They are free, available 24/7, and you can remain anonymous.

National Suicide Hopeline

Text “Hopeline” to 741741

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Phone: 800-273-8255

The one thing you need to know about depression is that it is treatable. There is hope. You don't have to go through this alone. Please reach out. There are people who understand and who will listen.

See more helpful articles:

10 Signs It’s Time to Get Help for Depression

Rheumatoid Arthritis, Depression, and Suicide Prevention

Adaptation: Learning to Live With RA