Your overall wellness is based on a number of different factors. Your physical health. Your hopes, goals and dreams. The idea of having the rest of your life in front of you and the unlimited potential that comes with that. But this can change in an instant when you’re diagnosed with a serious illness. Suddenly there are limiting factors on the rest of your life, or at least the quality of your life, and this can lead to a fall into depression after the diagnosis.
This is extremely common in people diagnosed with stage four cancer and other terminal illnesses, but it also affects people with diagnoses that are potentially life-altering as well — diabetes, heart disease or HIV, for example. Despite being treatable, they can make a person’s outlook on the future suddenly look different.
In this piece, we’ll explore the emotional process that takes place when you get life-changing news about your health, why depression is a common outcome during this time and tips to stay positive and in control over your mental health after a serious diagnosis.
How Do We React to Bad News?
Sudden bad news (like the onset of a serious illness) has a way of sneaking up on a person, seemingly out of nowhere, often leaving them and their loved ones mentally and emotionally unprepared. This is certainly true when that bad news concerns a person’s health. Let’s walk through some of the steps that might be involved when you or someone you know is told they have a severe or chronic disease.
Most people report that immediately after being told they have cancer or another serious illness, their reaction and that of their family was numbness and disbelief. As a way of coping with the knowledge that so many people in the world suffer from serious illnesses, people tend to operate under a mindset that these conditions are something that could never happen to them — only to other people. This is why, when told that it is happening to them, shock is the most common reaction.
While different people process these feelings in different ways, a common second step after shock and disbelief subsides is uncertainty. This can be uncertainty about what the future will hold, about the condition in general or about important decisions about treatment.
After some time, this “new normal” will no longer be new. Some people accept the direction their life is now going. Others become numb and detached. At the intersection of these feelings is a significant risk of the sick person, their family or close friends slipping into a serious mental health condition like depression.
Understanding Depression After a Diagnosis
Depression after cancer is very common. As MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas reports, 15-25% of people diagnosed with cancer experience depression afterwards. When you consider that many of these diagnoses also have a significant impact on a person’s family and friends, it’s clear that mental health after a diagnosis is volatile.
This is likely true of any diagnosis — depression and degenerative diseases are certainly linked. Multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease are likely similar catalysts for mental illness.
Depression after a diagnosis can manifest in two ways:
Major depression is acute depression — that is, it’s a mood disorder that occurs in shorter bursts. Major depression is typically brought on by trauma, grief or excessive stress and feels like persistent sadness.
Clinical depression shares many of the same effects as major depression but on a more chronic basis. People with clinical depression may have it for years or even major portions of their lives.
Those diagnosed with a terminal illness typically experience major depression during the initial process of grief, but the danger is that this will gradually turn into chronic, clinical depression as they continue to struggle with a new and unfamiliar conception of their health.
Even when patients with cancer or other similarly severe diseases avoid a mental health condition immediately after they’re diagnosed, the risk doesn’t go away. End of life depression is a term used to describe intense sadness as a person succumbs to their illness, and it can overwhelm both the sick person and those who care about them.
Tips to Avoid Letting a Diagnosis Control Your Life
We’ve talked about strategies for handling and moving past grief before, but the response to a grim diagnosis is a unique emotional process.
If you or a close loved one has been diagnosed with a terminal or otherwise severe health condition, it can be difficult not to start obsessing over it. It’s important to remember, though, that a diagnosis alone doesn’t mean the end of a person’s existence.
There’s a saying that’s common in support groups for terminally ill patients and their families: “Accept the diagnosis. Reject the prognosis.” What this means is that while someone may have had their life fundamentally changed by a disease, they can still live the best life possible today.
Here are a few tips to help yourself or a loved one avoid slipping into depression after a diagnosis.
Find a Support Group
Because of how common it is to experience grief after a cancer diagnosis, there are plenty of support groups and resources available to help people come to terms with sudden changes in their lives. Many hospitals and treatment centers offer groups for patients and their loved ones to talk about their experiences and receive empathetic support.
Try to Maintain a Sense of Routine
After receiving life-shattering news, it’s understandable to want to stop doing everything you were doing previously in favor of staying home or hiding from the world around you. Everyone has their own way of coping with the news, and it may take a while to come to terms with everything. With that in mind, keeping a routine, eating healthy meals and going to work or exercising (if possible) can help you maintain a sense of control over your life.
Seek Professional Help
It’s difficult to resist the urge to shut down completely when you learn you have a serious illness. It’s normal to not know where to go next or which way to turn. In this case, finding a counselor who can help you explore your feelings and make the most of your life can be a major boost for your mental health.
At FHE Health, we’re the experts on mental health care, and we understand how easy it is to succumb to depression after a diagnosis. If you or a loved one has just been diagnosed with a life-changing condition, contact us, and find out your options for taking care of yourself while you learn how to navigate these new circumstances.