Those with medical illnesses often face losses, stress and uncertainty associated with the illness and that can put them at a higher risk for depression than other individuals. Depending on the illness, the risk for depression may be twice that of the general population.
For example, depression affects about 25 percent of people with cancer, and can actually be the first symptom of some forms of cancer. It also impacts:
Up to 27 percent of people who have had a stroke
About 33 percent of those with HIV
Up to 65 percent of those who have had heart attacks
When a person with cancer, diabetes, or heart disease develops depression it can be harder to recognize and can be overlooked. Patients and family members dismiss sadness as a normal reaction to being seriously ill and mistake changes in eating and sleeping as side effects to medication.
There is nothing normal, however, about experiencing symptoms of depression for weeks on end. Individuals and family members should be concerned when they observe any of the following symptoms of depression persisting for weeks at a time:
Feelings of sadness, helplessness, and hopelessness
Worried, restless, or anxious mood
Lack of energy, feeling tired or slowed down that seems out of proportion to the illness
Difficulty concentrating, remembering, and making decisions
Sleeping too little or too much
Loss of interest in hobbies or activities that were once enjoyed
Thoughts of death or suicide
Depression can be effectively treated with medication and counseling. Within a matter of weeks, most people experience relief from depressive symptoms. Treating a person with cancer for depression is a little more complicated than the average case. Extra caution is important when a person is taking other medications or treatments. This is because some heart medications or pain relievers may interact with antidepressant medications. As a result, doctors carefully select safe, suitable, easily tolerated medications.
Recovering from depression helps people to cope better with medical illnesses. Mood and outlook improve. Energy levels rise. Sleeping and eating normalize. Thoughts become more hopeful. And it gets easier to follow through with strict treatment regimens, diets, or procedures needed to treat the medical illness. There is strong evidence that treating depression improves the physical prognosis, especially in heart disease.
If signs of depression are present, people should ask their doctor for a depression screening. To be screened for depression, people answer a standard set of questions about their symptoms. The resulting score indicates if a person's depressive symptoms are normal, mild, moderate, or severe.
To learn more about treating depression when it coexists with a medical illness or to arrange for a depression screening, contact Marietta Memorial Health Geriatric Psychiatric Unit at (740) 374-1501.
Dr. Hawkins is a Board Certified Psychiatrist who practices inpatient and outpatient care. He is the Medical Director of the Geriatric Behavioral Health Unit at Marietta Memorial Hospital. Dr. Hawkins is a native of Marietta.