An estimated 50 million Americans suffer from some kind of chronic illness. The high cost associated with health care is the number one reason for financial bankruptcy in the United States. Chronic illnesses are those medical diseases or injuries for which there is no known cure. It can be devastating to learn one has been diagnosed with such a condition and quite often, persons with chronic illness consume a significant amount of their time visiting physicians or other health care practitioner trying new therapies only to feel disappointed. Subsequently, feelings of hopelessness may ensue which often elicit depression and or anxiety. When an individual believes that the limitations and pain may increase over time, he/she may feel that suicide is an option.
Living with a disability impacts the entire family. There is often a reluctance to commit to social events or remain employed. Financial stress coupled with feelings of inadequacy can perpetuate feelings of shame and precipitate isolation. Psychotherapy with someone who is trained to work specifically with chronic illness can be beneficial. Treatment by a mental health professional who is not qualified in chronic illness may not only be fruitless but, in some cases, prove destructive. It is not uncommon for psychotherapists to make interpretations of medical conditions and conduct therapy in such a way as to try to isolate a hidden motivation for the manifestations of each symptom. A serious disease may be labeled as,”psychosomatic” and the patient may be counseled to identify what role the disease may be serving. Moreover, the psychotherapist may express this erroneous interpretation to other family members and the patient is made to feel as if he or she is to blame for being ill.
The therapy of choice for treating chronic illness is multidisciplinary and should include cognitive behavioral therapy, pain management when indicated, psycho education about the disease, and coordination of care with the patient’s physician. Antidepressant or anti-anxiety medications may be indicated. In some cases, support groups may be helpful, but this is contingent upon the patient’s mobility, duration and severity of symptoms as well as other factors. In some instances, support groups can exacerbate feelings of anxiety or depression. Family therapy can be an adjunctive intervention, providing a safe environment in which to assist the patient and family with expressing their fears, needs and other emotions openly while developing a foundation for further communication outside of the therapeutic setting.
The pain and limitations imposed by any disability cannot be denied. However, with the assistance of proper education and supportive counseling, it is possible for the patient to
shift his or her perspective from one of resignation to that of acceptance, being mindful that certain accommodations and adjustments are necessary to be able to function in a different manner. Nothing remains the same including the state of our health. One can learn to anticipate and adapt to symptoms while still remaining engaged with life. Equally important is the awareness that advancements are coming down the pipeline everyday and there is usually every reason to remain optimistic that new treatments are always a possibility.