Depression and long-term physical health problems

Depression and long-term physical health problems

Having a long-term physical health problem (such as cancer, a heart condition, diabetes, disabilities caused by a stroke, respiratory disease, kidney disease, arthritis or multiple sclerosis) can be distressing and difficult to cope with. In some people this can lead to depression, although they may not be aware that they are depressed.

Depression is a common mental health problem – it affects nearly 1 in 6 people in the UK (whether or not they have a physical health problem). The main symptoms of depression are losing pleasure in things that were once enjoyable and losing interest in other people and usual activities. A person with depression may also commonly experience some of the following: feeling tearful, irritable or tired most of the time, changes in appetite, and problems with sleep, concentration and memory.

People with depression typically experience lots of negative thoughts and feelings of guilt and worthlessness; they often criticise themselves and lack confidence. Sometimes people with depression harm themselves, have thoughts about suicide, or may even attempt suicide. People with depression may have feelings of anxiety as well.

If a person already has depression, having a long-term physical health problem may make their depression worse. Depression can also delay an improvement in a physical health problem or make the problem worse. This means that treating depression can also lead to improvements in a physical health problem.

Mild, moderate and severe depression

The terms mild, moderate and severe depression are used in this information to describe different levels of depression.

Mild depression is when a person has a small number of symptoms that have a limited effect on their daily life.

Moderate depression is when a person has more symptoms that can make their daily life much more difficult than usual.

Severe depression is when a person has many symptoms that can make their daily life extremely difficult.

A person may experience different levels of depression at different times.

Healthcare professionals may use different terms for depression, such as 'major depressive disorder' or 'clinical depression'.

Sometimes a person has very few symptoms of depression that don't affect their life too much in the short term but can do if they continue for a long time – 'dysthymia' is a term that is sometimes used when a person has very few symptoms lasting for 2 years or more. Treatments for mild to moderate depression may be helpful for people with very few symptoms that are persistent and/or affect the care they are getting for their physical health problem.

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