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Depression and Chronic Illness: Which Comes First?

Which comes first—depression or chronic illness? While the connection works both ways, one thing's for sure: treatment can make a difference.

Jennifer was 26 years old when her doctor diagnosed her with high blood pressure. It wasn't until she learned that she also suffered from polycystic ovary syndrome that she began her slide into depression. Like many other people with chronic illnesses, she hid her depression from her doctor, even as she underwent fertility treatments and a high-risk pregnancy.

"It's so hard to deal with a chronic illness," says Jennifer, now 29. "Many people are afraid to admit that they need help."

After the birth of her son, she broke down and told her doctor of her depressive symptoms—her self-imposed isolation from others, withdrawal from relationships, sleeplessness, and feelings of hopelessness. He helped her understand that like her other chronic conditions, her depression was not her fault. She began taking an antidepressant, and her outlook improved.

"It has helped tremendously," she explains. "I needed it to keep things in perspective for me, which it did."

When Illness Triggers Depression

When faced with a potentially life-changing diagnosis of a chronic condition, it can be easy for depression to set in.

When someone is diagnosed with an illness, it is not uncommon to feel helpless or alone. Depression is easy to overlook in part because some of its symptoms, like fatigue or change in energy levels, mimic those of some chronic illnesses.

When Depression Leads to Illness

In cases like Jennifer's, it's pretty clear that the illness led to depression. But for scores of others with conditions like heart disease and diabetes, the connection can be the reverse.

People with a history of depression are at least 3 times more likely to suffer from heart attacks than their non-depressed peers, making depression as important a risk factor as high cholesterol or family history of heart disease.

Depression is also associated with type 2 diabetes. Links between depression and these illnesses likely work on different levels. Depression could have a behavioral component, such as having different eating or exercising habits. It can also affect the body in how the immune system works or how the blood clots.

The Diagnosis Dilemma

There may be some people who suffer from depression, but go undiagnosed. It may be the result of a minimalization of depression that stems from the people themselves. It may seem like a natural part the illness, preventing them from realizing they have depression as well.

For many chronically ill patients who are depressed, it's a Catch-22. Their depression saps their energy, leaving them withdrawn and less likely to actively seek help from their healthcare providers.

Family and friends can play an important role in helping bring depression to light in people with ongoing health problems. Often times it takes an outsider to realize there is more going on with someone they are close to.

Luckily, doctors are becoming more aware of the importance of screening for depression, and incorporating it into how they approach their patients. Looking for signs of depression is as easy as asking a few questions. How the person answers them can indicate that there may be a problem.

Depression's Devastating Effects

No matter when depression strikes, if it accompanies some chronic illnesses, the effects can be serious:

Although not all chronic diseases are as closely related to depression as diabetes, heart disease, and asthma, the way depression worsens symptoms makes it a particularly dangerous risk factor.

Treatment for Depression

The complex cause-and-effect relationships between depression and chronic illness may never be completely understood, though studies are aimed at pinpointing specific risk factors and discovering optimal treatments. In the meantime, the doctors say that raising awareness of the prevalence of depression in people with chronic illness may help more of them receive appropriate treatment, whether it's psychotherapy, an antidepressant, or some combination of the two.

Already, doctors have seen that successful treatment of co-occurrences of depression shows promising benefits. This doesn't surprise Jennifer, who continues to manage her depression daily. After taking control of her depression, she has been better able to accept and deal with her other chronic illnesses. She thinks it's unfortunate that depression is not better understood and its treatment more accepted by the general public. "Depression is a medical condition, just like other conditions," she explains. "It's okay to ask for help."

Symptoms of Depression

Doctors and their patients should look for the following symptoms as clues of depression, especially in the presence of other medical conditions:

If you have a chronic illness, and you have any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor. Depression is highly treatable and it will help you better cope with managing your other illness.


American Psychological Association

Mental Health America


Canadian Psychiatric Association

Canadian Psychological Association


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Last reviewed September 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP  Last Updated: 11/27/2013