The Psychological Effects of Long-Term Illness

Being diagnosed with a chronic illness brings with it a sense of dread and worry as to what the future holds. Certainly, there will be months, years or perhaps a lifetime of medication, surgical procedures, pain and discomfort, depending on the condition. But, this foreboding can be just the start of the psychological effects that a long-term illness can engender.

Initial Feelings

Initially, you can feel a profound sense of loss, almost like a bereavement, but it is your good health that you mourn, the healthy version of you that you grieve for. Breaking an arm or leg gives you a brief taste of what it’s like, being unable to do to all the activities that you take for granted. You begin to resent the plaster cast, people stop sympathising and after a few weeks you count down the days until the cast comes off. Someone with a chronic condition might have to deal with those feelings for the rest of their lives.

There can be a turmoil of emotions: anger at the perceived injustice of why you are suffering; anxiety about how long you might suffer; or, if you’ve been told that you won’t get better, fear of what is to come; guilt that your actions may have caused the illness; envy of the “normal” healthy people around you.


When you are first diagnosed you have your initial emotions to cope with, but on top of that, you have to tell your partner, family and, eventually, your friends. Naturally, they will be sympathetic towards you and concerned for your wellbeing, which in itself can feel like a burden. But they might struggle to really comprehend what “long term” means.

As the time passes the compassion can fade and friends can actually become impatient with you, especially where your illness isn’t obviously apparent. Some long-term illnesses are notoriously inconsistent. One day you can feel and act almost normal, but the next you might not be able to get out of bed. Someone saying, “What’s the matter with you? You look fine,” when you’re feeling awful can really drag you down. But then again, putting on a brave face to hide behind can also be so wearing that you might stop wanting to go out and interact with people.

Chronic illness can also take a toll on your personal relationships. Of course, your loved ones will want to take care of you, but making the change from, say, being a loving partner to becoming a carer is extremely difficult. Some conditions might cause you to not be able to control certain functions, which involves a loss of dignity for you and embarrassment for your partner. Often, this can create resentment on both sides with your partner thinking, “I didn’t sign up for this,” and you thinking, “In sickness and in health”.

As all of these emotions build up, you can feel isolated, helpless and afraid which can lead to anxiety and depression.

Professional and Self Help

Physical long-term illness is definitely not all in the mind and any person who tells you to, “Pull yourself together,” deserves a beating! However, the power of positive thinking can have an impact on both your physical and mental wellbeing.

Depression and anxiety and the associated symptoms such as trouble sleeping are believed to weaken the immune system. This can cause the physical illness to worsen which in turn can deepen the psychological problem. This is a destructive cycle.

Another issue with some long-term conditions is that you can be in constant pain or discomfort. This causes you to hold tension in your body which creates more pain and muscle fatigue.

You can’t always deal with these issues on your own and, if your doctor fails to refer you, you could seek the help of a psychotherapist. Being able to talk to someone who is disassociated and non-judgemental can be a tremendous help. They can help you towards a more positive focus which may also lead you to be able to develop relaxation techniques and reduce the stress on your body and mind.

Physical and Psychological Illness

One of the problems with the health service is that physical care and mental wellbeing are kept entirely separate. The doctors who diagnose and treat patients with chronic illness are not trained to identify mental health issues and all too often, unless the patient voices concerns, these conditions are not detected.

Those suffering from long-term illness are two or three times more likely to develop a co-existent emotional or mental condition. This has a number of negative effects which can worsen the clinical outcome of the illness.

It exacerbates the physical condition and patients are likely to spend more time in the hospital or in outpatient care.

Patients with undetected co-existing conditions are less likely to manage their conditions effectively by not taking care of their own wellbeing, missing appointments and failing to take medication.

There can also be an additional financial burden as those with mental and physical illnesses are less likely to work or will take many more days off than people without the mental condition.

It has been suggested that clinical doctors should have at least some basic training in mental health issues and that there could be some integration of physical and mental healthcare. For those with chronic illness this would improve their overall care, quality of life and possible clinical outcome.

Misdiagnosed and Undetected Conditions

Healthcare professionals are highly trained and devote their lives to provide the best possible care for their patients. But sometimes they do make mistakes and, when it comes to chronic illness that can have devastating long-term effects.

If you or a family member have suffered as a result of a mental or physical condition going undetected or it was initially misdiagnosed causing additional distress, you can find out how to make a claim for clinical negligence compensation.

Consult a legal expert who specialises in medical negligence claims and who will advise you on what you can claim for and how much compensation you might expect.

Photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash