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Recognising and Managing Depression When You Have a Chronic Illness

Your Health / Conditions / Mental Health / Recognising and Managing Depression When You Have a Chronic Illness​​​​​​​

Published on Nov 22, 2017
Medically reviewed by Joan A. Mackell, PhD


Over 7 million Australians and over 2 million New Zealanders suffer from a chronic illness. But did you know that people with chronic medical conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, and stroke, among other illnesses, are at higher risk for developing symptoms of depression? In fact, it is estimated that nearly one-third of individuals with a chronic medical condition have a mood disorder diagnosis, including depression and anxiety. And 68% of adults with diagnosed mood disorders have at least one co-existing medical condition. Still, mood disorder symptoms in the presence of chronic illness often go undiagnosed and untreated.

Chronic Illness and Depression

What causes depression to co-exist with chronic illnesses? The answer is complex. Normal life events can cause a depressive episode for anyone—whether or not a chronic illness is present. Depression itself seems to be caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental and psychological factors. So having a chronic illness which interferes with how well you function may be a major contributor to depression. But on the whole, the relationship between the chronic illness and depression can vary from person to person – it appears to interact differently in different people.

Also, an illness may occur before depression starts, may cause depression, or may even be a result of it. Some very serious conditions have been known to actually trigger depression. One government-funded study reported that 40% of people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder experienced depression 4 months after the initial traumatic event.

What to Look For

If you’re managing a chronic illness and notice any of the following symptoms, be sure to talk to your doctor:

  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Significant changes in appetite or weight that are unrelated to chronic illness
  • Inability to sleep or, alternately, sleeping too much
  • Fatigue that is unrelated to chronic illness
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Slowed thinking or difficulty concentrating
  • Suicidal thoughts or actions

If you think you might suffer from symptoms of depression, there are some things you can do to improve your situation:

  • Don’t wait long to get evaluated. See your doctor as soon as possible
  • Try to be active and discuss a good fitness routine with your doctor.  Participate in appropriate exercises for your well-being and medical condition
  • Explore the option of “talk therapy” (or psychotherapy) with a professional. Many types of psychotherapy exist to help manage negative thinking or see yourself and your situation in more positive ways
  • Understand your treatment options. If you have mild or moderate depression, psychotherapy may be the best option. For those with more severe depression or recurring depression, doctors often recommend a combination of medication and psychotherapy

How to Get Help

Your family doctor can help you decide whether a mental health specialist is a useful resource. If needed, he or she can refer you to a psychiatrist or psychologist who is experienced in treating depression in persons with a co-existing medical condition. Community mental health centres and peer support groups may also provide guidance and support.

If you have thoughts of suicide or have attempted suicide, and do not know where to turn, an emergency room doctor may be able to provide temporary help and point you in the right direction to get further support.

Depression occurring with a chronic illness is often overlooked. But this doesn’t have to be true for you. Keep in mind that it’s important you become educated about depression and get the help you need.

Joan A. Mackell, PhD was Senior Director of Medical Affairs at Pfizer


  1. AIHW article: Chronic disease – Australia’s biggest health challenge. Accessed 10/2/2017.
  2. NZ National Health Committee. Meeting the needs of people with chronic conditions. Accessed 10/2/2017.
  3. US Centers for Disease Control factsheet: Mental Health and Chronic Disease in the Workplace. Accessed 10/2/2017.
  4. DBSA (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance) Accessed 10/2/2017.

Last reviewed: 15/08/2019

External Resources

Beyond Blue
Black Dog Institute
SANE Australia
Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand - Depression
Health Navigator New Zealand - Depression
National Depression Initiative New Zealand

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