Serious Physical Illnesses Can Undermine Mental Health

An unhappy woman lying in a hospital bedPeople are increasingly surviving injuries and critical illnesses that might have killed them a generation ago. Despite the improved survival rate, mental health challenges are increasingly affecting people who experiencd severe illness. A new study suggests that people treated for critical illnesses are more likely to develop mental health problems than people who have not been treated for serious health problems.

Critical Illness and Mental Health

Researchers tracked the effects of critical illnesses by evaluating the records of 24,179 Danish patients treated between 2006 and 2008. Each patient had been treated in an intensive care unit and required the assistance of a ventilator. They compared the records of these patients to those of 20,000 hospital patients who were not critically ill, and to 120,000 members of the general population. Researchers controlled for factors such as socioeconomic status and chronic illness that could increase the likelihood of developing a mental health condition. 

They found that people who had been critically ill had a higher risk of mental health problems. Of those treated for a critical illness, 0.5% experienced a psychiatric condition, compared to 0.2 % of other hospitalized patients and 0.2% in the general population. People who had suffered a critical illness were also more likely to have suffered a psychiatric condition prior to the critical illness. Among the critically ill, 6.2% had experienced a mental health challenge within the past five years, compared to 5.4% of hospital patients and 2.4% of the general population.

Critically ill patients were prescribed psychiatric medications at a rate of 12.7%. Only 5% of other hospital patients took psychiatric medications, and 0.7% of the general population received a prescription for a psychiatric drug. 

Improving Mental Health in People Facing Physical Illnesses

A serious illness can lead to enormous stress. Critically ill patients may face financial, relationship, career, social, and similar challenges that can increase their odds of developing psychiatric conditions. People with psychiatric challenges are also more likely to develop health challenges ranging from minor aches and pains to serious illnesses. Social support, a healthy diet, good medical care, and therapy can all help people facing physical illnesses reduce their risk of mental health conditions. If you are facing a serious illness, can help you find a therapist who can help you cope with stress and find healthy solutions. 


  1. Olver, J., and Hopwood, M. (2012). Depression and physical illness. Medical Journal of Australia. doi: 10.5694/mjao12.10597
  2. Torgovnick, K. (2008, December 03). Why Do the Mentally Ill Die Younger? TIME. Retrieved from
  3. Wunsch, H., MD, MSc, Christiansen, C., MD, PhD, Johansen, M. B., MSc, Olsen, M., MD, PhD, Ali, N., MD, Angus, D. C., MD, MPh, & Sorensen, H. T., MD, PhD, DSc. (2014, March 19). Psychiatric diagnoses and psychoactive medication use among nonsurgical critically ill patients receiving mechanical ventilation. The Journal of the American Medical Association311(11):1133-1142. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.2137 

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  • Inez


    July 15th, 2014 at 11:35 AM

    I have had a hard time with my breast cancer diagnosis and not just because of the physical stuff. Yeah, the treatments are tough to tolerate but I have had to also cut way back on my hours at work and soemtimes I don’t know how I will pay my bills from month to month

  • Martin D.

    Martin D.

    July 15th, 2014 at 1:32 PM

    So what do we want- do we want to survive and be miserable or die from soemthing that is now preventable?

    My guess is that most of us would say that neither is the way that they would choose, so my recommendation is that the entire medical community has to change in order for people to not only survive but to come up with a treatment plan that makes life worth contiinuing to live. This means that a whole lot more providers and caregivers have to get involved in every single case, and we have to make this as if it takes a village to help someone recover from something this traumatic. We cannot assume that one provider and one person can do this alone anymore.

  • selena


    July 16th, 2014 at 6:11 PM

    Is there any evidence that this is only found with certain illnesses or is it pretty much anything that takes away a person’s independence?

  • Clary


    July 22nd, 2014 at 3:32 PM

    I know that I would be devastated if I ever have to receive news like this so it is no surprise to me that you can very much go doesn hill emotionally when you get news like this. It could be rough on any of us, but for those who could already be struggling it could be even more of a disaster.
    Keep an eye out for those in need, listen and watch and be there when they need you to be.

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