Chronic illness can be physically and emotionally taxing, especially when the condition is complex or long-term. Unfortunately, poor physical health and mental distress can lead to a downward spiral of feelings like loneliness, fatigue and hopelessness that is difficult to recover from without help. Luckily, there are several ways that people experiencing chronic illness and depression can find release.

In this article, we’ll discuss how depression affects chronically ill adults and the different strategies healthcare professionals use to treat the condition.

What is depression?

Depression, also known as major depressive disorder, is a mental illness affecting your ability to participate in daily life; engage with family, friends and coworkers; and partake in activities you enjoy. Depression is a prevalent condition, affecting one in fifteen adults per year, and can lead to various physical and emotional problems.

Although depression can affect anyone at any time, it is most common among women and generally appears in the late teens to mid-20s. Other risk factors include differences in brain chemistry, a genetic history of depression, low self-esteem or low-stress tolerance, continuous exposure to violence, abuse or poverty.


Depression symptoms can range from mild to severe and must persist for over two weeks for a definitive diagnosis. Often, people dealing with chronic illness and their family members will overlook signs of depression because they think that being sad is expected when dealing with illness. However, depression is more than sadness; and symptoms should be taken seriously.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, symptoms can include:

  • Persistent empty, sad or depressed mood
  • Trouble going to sleep, waking up or oversleeping
  • Unexpected changes in weight or appetite unrelated to dieting
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions
  • Contemplating death or suicide
  • Feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness or guilt
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Increased fatigue
  • Feelings of irritation, frustration or restlessness

Which chronic illnesses trigger depression?

Depression affects individuals with chronic diseases for several reasons. Often illness causes significant life changes and restricts the activities you can participate in, sometimes leading to changes in self-esteem and attitude. In addition, the physical effects of certain conditions and medication side effects can lead to depression. Unfortunately, depression is one of the most common complications of chronic illness, with up to one-third of people showing signs of depression.

Depression presents strongly in patients with certain chronic diseases:

  • Coronary artery disease – 18-20%
  • Cancer – 25%
  • Diabetes – 25%
  • Parkinson’s disease – 40%
  • Multiple sclerosis – 40%
  • Heart attack – 40-65%

Other conditions known to lead to depression include stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, autoimmune diseases, epilepsy, and HIV/AIDS.

How do you treat depression?

Although depression is pervasive among people with chronic illnesses, it does not have to be! Depression is one of the most treatable mental disorders – the American Psychiatric Association estimates that 80-90% of people respond well to treatment and get some relief.

If you are experiencing depression, your first step should be visiting your general practitioner. They will perform a thorough examination to ensure that your feelings aren’t a result of a vitamin or mineral deficiency, hormonal changes, thyroid changes or medication interactions. It is important to tell them about any medications and supplements you take to manage your conditions.

If they determine that you have depression, you should visit a mental health practitioner such as a counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist for treatment.


People with chronic illnesses can usually take advantage of the same treatment options available to other patients.

Talk therapy

Talk therapy, or psychotherapy, generally occurs one-on-one with a medical professional. Your clinician will help you learn how to cope with stress, apply mindfulness techniques and support your development.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a common form of talk therapy used with patients with depression. It is used alone in mild depression and in conjunction with medication for more severe cases. It helps identify negative, automatic thought patterns and shows you how to respond to challenges in a positive manner.


Antidepressants are commonly used to treat depression, and a wide variety are on the market. Your doctor can help you find the medication that would work best for you.

It takes two to three months to see the full benefits of antidepressants, although some people experience improvement within the first week or two. Sometimes, an individual may be prescribed a combination of antidepressants and psychotropic medications for maximum benefit.

Avoiding depression

Living with a chronic illness is a challenge, and while standard techniques, such as frequent exercise, may not be available to you, you can take steps to avoid depression.

  1. Don’t isolate yourself – Maintain your social connections to friends and family and reach out to them often. If you don’t have close relationships, look for online or community groups that can provide social support.
  1. Build a medical team you can trust – Part of maintaining your peace of mind is having a team of medical professionals you fully trust. If you are uncomfortable with any member of your care team, look for another professional that better fits your needs.
  1. Keep doing the things you enjoy – As much as possible, keep engaging in your favorite hobbies and activities. Hobbies can boost your self-esteem and self-confidence and keep you involved with friends and community members.
  1. Learn about your condition – Learning all you can about your illness can help you feel more empowered and in control.

Chronic illness and depression are physically and emotionally draining conditions, yet there is hope for recovery with the right mindset. Each individual’s experience with managing chronic illness and associated depression can vary, so it’s essential to take the time to find what works best for you.

At Maxim, our dedicated nurses, clinicians and home health aides are available to help you navigate your chronic illness. Visit our care services page to learn more about the care we provide, and contact your local office for more information.