Many people think that depression adds a feeling of extreme sadness to a person’s emotional state. But the reality is that depression actually takes away other feelings such as excitement, enthusiasm, and joy. To the unexperienced friend or family member, common symptoms of depression such as loss of interest or lack of appetite, come across as simply feeling “not hungry” or “tired.” Over time, a depressed person may even be labeled as “lazy” because their unmotivated, indifferent, and apathetic behavior is misunderstood. Those with high-functioning depression, or dysthymia such as celebrities with depression are even harder to detect because they “seem fine” and are often high achievers in society.
Due to the unfortunate the stigmas that surround depression and mental health disorders, some people purposely hide their depression to avoid the guilt and shame associated with it. Depression is still very much perceived by society in derogatory terms. One suffering from depression may be viewed as a failure or someone incapable of handling his or her problems. When there is shame attached to a condition, those who have it may feel as though they are a burden and so they hide it. They attempt to handle it on their own. But hiding depression can only make the problem worse. It is nearly impossible to get through depression alone. Those who have it need a social support system and professional help.
What so many people do not understand is that depression, like all mental health disorders, is a on a spectrum. There is a range from healthy to compromised, and it can shift from mild to severe depending on triggers. Depression is a continuum and something that anyone can experience at any point in their lives. The risk of depression often increases with age when older people tend to lose their sense of self-worth. Whether they have lost their spouse, other family members, or close friends, they may begin to feel loneliness which can lead to depression. Yet, at any age, major life events, such as losing a loved one, environmental factors, a personal crisis, injury or physical disease can cause depression.
Invisible Illnesses Can Lead to Depression
Being diagnosed with a chronic illness or disease can be life changing. But when that disease is an invisible one such as kidney disease, HIV, diabetes, thyroid disease, Crohn’s disease, or so many others that are not necessarily accompanied by visual manifestations, an otherwise happy and stable person could unexpectedly suffer from depression. The stresses associated with an invisible disease can be extreme and nothing prepares a person for the lifestyle and emotional changes that take place when they are diagnosed.
Although invisible, serious illness can cause significant changes in many aspects of one’s life. For instance, a person with Crohn’s disease has difficulty absorbing certain nutrients. They may experience constant stomach cramping that makes doing certain activities difficult. Those with heart disease may find it difficult to participate in sports or long periods of physical exertion.
The chronic pain that many patients with invisible illnesses experience daily impacts their bodies as well as their thoughts and behavior, creating psychosocial issues, including depression. In some cases, the physical effects of the invisible illness itself or the side effects of the medication needed for treatment, leads to depression. Those with intense pain and other symptoms of their illnesses often experience interrupted sleep; interference with regular activities such as eating, or even thinking, and concentration. They experience decreased physical and sexual activity. They may be unable to enjoy being with friends and family. Above all, having an invisible illness may make it impossible for a person to feel included and to pursue the activities they enjoy, making anxiety and depression very common. When a person feels bad physically, it can affect their thoughts. Feeling bad leads to thinking you are bad, which can lead to a lack of self-confidence and a decreased sense of hope in the future. It is not surprising, then, that those who struggle from invisible illness often experience a certain amount of hopelessness, despair, and sadness.
The degree of depression often increases with the severity of the illness, treatment, and the level of life disruption it causes. Depression from an invisible illness is different for men and women, with women having a greater chance of experiencing mental illness. More so, depression can actually intensify pain, and increase feelings of fatigue and overall sluggishness. The combination of disease and depression often makes people purposely hide and isolate themselves, which exacerbates their depression.
Invisible illnesses can be medical mysteries and often can’t be diagnosed by a tissue biopsy or simple blood test. Perhaps worse, many of the symptoms associated with invisible illnesses are subjective such as headaches, body pain, or fatigue. These symptoms could be associated with hundreds of other conditions, so pinpointing the illness and prescribing the right medication and treatment can be a guessing game even for doctors who have been in the practice for decades. Lupus, for example, has symptoms that don’t always happen all at once and the disease can manifest in a number of different ways. The treatments can differ according to gender, specifically because women are more likely to experience more hormonal changes then men.
For all those reasons, it is not uncommon for individuals who struggle with physical invisible illnesses or mental illnesses, to see many different clinicians and therapists over many years before the clues start coming together. While a general physician may diagnose a patient with depression, that’s not always the full story. More thorough testing into why someone is experiencing exhaustion, fatigue, joint pain, and other symptoms can help paint the full picture.
Increasing Invisible Illness Awareness
The facts about invisible diseases and those who struggle with them are alarming. For example, 96% of people with chronic medical conditions live with an invisible illness. Luckily, not everyone who suffers has to alter their life. In fact, that is one of the reasons why their illness is so hidden. They appear to be living a happy, healthy life, and unless they speak up, which many don’t do, and their illness goes undetected by those around them. Numerous individuals who live with a hidden physical illness or invisible mental challenge, are still able to enjoy the activities they love. They are able to be active, participate in sports, hobbies, and social engagements. However, for many, it’s a struggle simply to get through the day. No two days are the same, which makes living with the invisible illness even more of a challenge.
The Invisible Disabilities Association, founded in 1996, has dedicated an entire week in October to raising awareness for invisible disabilities and illnesses. They offer education, encouragement, advocacy and support to those who suffer from invisible illnesses and for the people who love them and want to help. Donations and proceeds from the week help the Invisible Disabilities Association continue their outreach and awareness to help erase the stigma and shame of those diseases under the umbrella term of invisible illness. The more awareness and education that is made about invisible diseases, the easier life will be for those who battle through life every day with their disease. By talking about invisible diseases, they will become less hidden, empowering them to take better care of their physical and mental wellbeing, and seek help when needed.
Becoming One’s Own Advocate
Although it can be difficult, learning self-care and increasing one’s body awareness is one of the most effective treatments. Individuals suffering from an invisible illness can develop a better awareness of their body and how it feels by improving their ability to recognize and manage pain and fatigue. By collecting systematic data on their daily life experience, often referred to a “pain tracking,” patients can learn what helps and what hurts and devise strategies to improve. Pain tracking is an approach that helps compile individualized information that allows patients to increase control over their condition and their life.
Life with an invisible illness will never be “easy,” but raising awareness, practicing self care, and seeking treatment from a medical professional, can make it much more bearable. If you or someone you know is battling through life with an invisible illness, speak up and get help. Treatment is often just a phone call away.