Disease or some form of serious illness will likely affect every person in some way, whether it is directly (one’s own condition) or indirectly (a friend or family member’s condition). The onset and existence of medical health issues and illnesses may contribute to feelings of sadness, anxiety, depression, and/or anger, and a mental health professional may be able to help individuals cope with any challenges that arise as they face a difficult or debilitating illness.
Any long-term illness can be difficult to cope with, but a life-altering, severely debilitating, or fatal illness or health condition may be particularly challenging to face. Whether a medical condition or health issue is expected and prepared for or sudden and comes as a shock, the effects may be similarly negative.
When experiencing illness, a person may feel helpless, hopeless, and frustrated. An illness or injury that leaves a person confined in bed or to one room may cause a person to experience boredom or become irritable, especially when mental processes are not affected by the health issue. These feelings may lead to stress and cause a person to lash out at family and friends, which may put strain on relationships. Some individuals who use painkillers to cope with pain may also experience dependency or addiction.
A person used to an active lifestyle may find it difficult to adapt to enforced inactivity, even for a short period of time. Being unable to participate in one’s daily routine or attend school or work may prove challenging, and some may experience stress related to job security, academic performance, or financial concerns, especially when one’s prognosis is unclear. When a person who is ill requires care, especially long-term care, family members who shoulder this responsibility may also be affected by this challenge.
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Children who are coping with a serious illness or a disability are twice as likely to experience emotional concerns or behavioral disturbances as children who are not similarly affected. It may often be difficult for children to understand their illness and its effects, and children may find it challenging to cope with lifestyle changes or restrictions. Some children may experience confusion, face bullying, or lose friends as a result of their illness. Children who miss school repeatedly due to illness or injury might also experience stress as a result of falling behind in class.
A medical issue may effectively undermine a number of daily routines, habits, and lifestyle preferences that an individual has come to depend on. Further, it may impede the ability to succeed at work or in school. A chronic, long-term, or serious physical illness can also lead to feelings of stress, anxiety, fear, and depression. It may be difficult for individuals to adapt to new or reduced exercise habits or dietary restrictions, and some prescribed medications may have unwanted side effects.
It may be helpful to remember that illness does not have to be faced alone. When family and friends are available to help, it may be beneficial to reach out and accept support, even when one finds it difficult to rely on others extensively. However, health care professionals in the physical or mental health fields may also be able to provide referrals, recommendations, and other forms of assistance, should an individual wish to join a support group, seek a second opinion, pursue alternative medicine or treatment, and so on.
Simply speaking to a therapist or other mental health professional may be a helpful part of the treatment process once a person is diagnosed with an illness. A therapist can help one address the realities of one’s condition and explore methods to maintain good mental health, even while coping with physical challenges. Some studies also indicate that certain conditions may improve when stress-reduction techniques and mental health treatment are part of the treatment process, along with medicine, physical therapy, surgery, and/or other medical procedures.
Coping with a loved one's illness may also create significant stress, frustration, exhaustion, and other issues. Whether it is a temporary or permanent situation, acting as a caregiver to a person who is experiencing health problems may become an isolating experience, and it can lead to complicated feelings of guilt and depression. The experience may be especially challenging when caring for a child who is fatally ill, when caring for a partner or spouse who faces a life-threatening illness, or when caring for adult parents while also taking care of one’s own children.
Families affected by one member’s chronic or serious illness may face financial issues, worry, stress, or other concerns. Often, familial relationships will be affected as members attempt to cope, and conflict may result. These and other feelings can often be mitigated with the help of a mental health professional. Therapy may contribute to a better quality of life for the caregiver, the person being cared for, and any family members also involved.
Because poor physical health can contribute to the development of mental health concerns, it may be helpful to seek the support of a therapist or other mental health professional when facing a long-term or chronic illness or while recovering from an injury. Therapy for medical concerns can help one cope with concepts such as mortality, loss, aging, and grief or the anticipation of grief.
When family members are also affected by one member’s illness, family counseling may also be recommended. Couples counseling can also be helpful when a couple faces stress due to one partner’s illness or medical concern. A child coping with long-term illness might also obtain benefit from therapy. Talking through stress, the challenges of illness, and any associated concerns may be helpful to children who are at risk of developing mental health concerns related to illness. Additionally, it may be helpful for the siblings of a child—or parent—who is ill to address any feelings of frustration, neglect, or other challenges associated with a family member’s illness.
In therapy, a person may be able to come to a better understanding of an illness, disability, or condition and explore ways to cope with the challenges that may accompany it. Those who find it necessary to alter habits or lifestyle as a result of a medical condition may find that therapy can help them adapt to new patterns and address other areas of life that may be impacted or in which positive change can lead to improved physical well-being.
Support groups or group therapy sessions may also have a positive impact on the process of coping with health concerns. The support of others who are facing the same or similar challenges may give some a new perspective and offer renewed hope or simply a sense of companionship. Having a shared space to discuss the effects of illness may be essential when one feels as if family members and friends have difficulty comprehending the full extent of a condition’s physical and emotional impact.
- Dealing with arthritis: Pierre, 56, seeks treatment to address the feelings of isolation, loneliness, and frustration that have lately been affecting him. He tells the therapist it has been difficult for him to participate in many of his favorite activities—such as bicycling, basketball, and playing with his grandchildren—since the recent onset of arthritis symptoms. The pain he experiences makes him feel much older, he reports, as if he is entering a stage of life he is not yet prepared for. This feeling, along with the decrease in physical activity, has brought about a depressed mood and contributed to his self-imposed isolation from his friends. Over several session of therapy, he begins to develop a greater understanding of the changes in his body and comes to accept that some activities may be more difficult. The therapist provides him with information on treatments and pain management strategies, and Pierre realizes that while it may be difficult for him to discuss his condition and its effects with his friends and family, doing so may help them be more aware of what he is experiencing. With the therapist’s help, Pierre addresses areas where he could make potentially helpful changes in his habits and decides on a few activities that he wishes to focus on, resolving to make the effort to keep them a part of his life. The therapist also helps him come to the realization that this compromise does not mean he has given up.
- Addressing effects of juvenile diabetes in therapy: Natalia, 11, enters therapy at a referral from her doctor. She was recently diagnosed with juvenile diabetes and reports frustration and anger with her condition. Natalia tells the therapist she knows she has to take her health seriously but also says she hates needles, she does not want to check her blood level or give herself shots, and she thinks it is “so unfair” that she cannot have cake, ice cream, or candy. Another source of stress is the teasing she has been receiving from classmates: Natalia’s diagnosis occurred after she had to leave a sleepover early when she became ill and wet the bed. The therapist first validates Natalia’s distress, agreeing that it must be difficult to face such challenges at a young age, and together they begin to address each area of concern. The therapist determines that Natalia does understand the realities of her condition, and that she knows she has to check her blood sugar levels often, eat regularly, and avoid certain foods. They address the reaction of Natalia’s classmates and explore reasons why they might behave in such a way. With the therapist’s encouragement, Natalia decides to ask her teacher if she can give a short presentation about diabetes to help her classmates understand what she is going through. She plans to discuss other options with her parents, therapist, and teacher if the teasing does not improve after her presentation. Just speaking to the therapist—a person who listens without being overprotective or continuously asking how she feels—has the effect of improving Natalia’s mood, and she finds she is becoming more able to accept her condition.
- Bolton, J. (Ed.). (2014, May 1). Coping with physical illness. Retrieved from http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/healthadvice/problemsdisorders/copingwithphysicalillness.aspx
- Mental Health and Growing Up: Factsheets for parents, teachers and young people. (4th ed.). (2013). London: The Royal College of Psychiatrists.
- Physical Health and Mental Health. (2011, February 4). Retrieved from http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/our-work/policy/physical-health-and-mental-health
- The Relationship between Mental Health, Mental Illness and Chronic Physical Conditions. (2008, December 16). Retrieved from http://ontario.cmha.ca/public_policy/the-relationship-between-mental-health-mental-illness-and-chronic-physical-conditions/#.VhQB6_lViko