Chronic Illness and Mental Illness

At the ripe age of twelve, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a type of IBD, or inflammatory bowel disease, when the immune system attacks the digestive tract resulting in inflammation. But the worst part for me wasn’t necessarily the pain, which is most easily described as if there were sunburn in your intestine. It was that Crohn’s was a chronic illness, and like diabetes, arthritis, and Parkinson’s, it would never go away. 

After my diagnosis, I retreated into myself. I closed myself off from people. I stopped doing things I loved. Well, I stopped practically everything actually. I remember thinking how I wished I had a disease that would kill me; that would be better than suffering like this. Still, I didn’t think there was a problem, and it became only obvious in hindsight—Crohn’s disease didn’t just attack my physical wellbeing, but my emotional and mental wellbeing too.

Now that I’m older and can look back on this time of my life, I’ve come to wonder: Is this a common occurrence? Is there really a correlation between chronic illnesses, like Crohn’s, and mental illness?

According to The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), there is. Just as people with mental illness are at a higher risk to experience chronic physical conditions, those with chronic physical conditions or illnesses are more likely to develop mental illness than their peers. As a matter of fact, they are two times as likely. Even if the connection between mental and physical health seemed obvious to some of you, this statistic is still disturbing. 

I can’t help but notice some similarities in the symptoms of chronic illnesses and depression. Many chronic illnesses have symptoms including chronic pain. For example, in my case, I often experience abdominal pain as a result of my Crohn’s.  This is a common symptom of depression as well. They also share the symptoms of increase or decrease in appetite and physical activity. In addition, eating and exercising more or less can affect your overall physical and mental wellbeing.

There are also connections between other mental illnesses, specifically anxiety, and chronic illness. This I also know from personal experience.  In high school, I had some bouts of anxiety.  I was starting to become really sick again, nearly as bad as I was when I was first diagnosed, and I feared that it would only get worse.  he thing about Crohn’s is that you never know when the symptoms are going to act up; at times it just feels like you have absolutely no control. I also feared that I might revert back to the bad place I was in before, that I had spent so long digging myself out of.  This resulted in anxiety attacks. I’d feel lightheaded. I’d have trouble breathing. I’d be sweating. My heart would be pounding.  I’d feel like I couldn’t control anything—you know the drill. The thing about chronic illnesses is that it’s only something that can be managed or helped; it can’t be completely cured.  Those with chronic illnesses often live knowing that at any moment symptoms beyond their control can creep up out of nowhere. Sound familiar?  It should.  Those with anxiety live in a similar state of fear, where they feel they have no control.

This correlation between mental illness and chronic illness is something I want everyone to acknowledge and be aware of. However, I don’t want any of you to leave here thinking that anyone with a chronic illness is going to have a mental illness.  Not everyone responds to things the same way.  Those with mental illnesses are oftentimes predisposed to have them.  Similarly, many chronic illnesses are hereditary. And although National Alliance on Mental Illness’s (NAMI) website says depression is relatively common for those with chronic illnesses, it shouldn’t be dismissed as normal. Although it is an understandable reaction, it should not be ignored and people should still seek treatment, not just for the chronic illness, but for depression as well. For those with, or even without, chronic illness, taking care of your mind is just as important as taking care of your body. 

Danielle Frekot is a freshman at Syracuse University.  She is studying Art History in the College of Arts & Sciences.  She was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2009 and hopes to support those going through similar struggles, both physically and mentally. You can contact her at dsfrekot@syr.edu.

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