We Can't Ignore the Connection Between Chronic Illness and Suicide


There are so many things to consider when dealing with the chronic illness of a loved
one.  Medications. Lifestyle changes. Alleviating the physical suffering. Balancing employment with doctor’s appointments. Home schooling vs. brick and mortar school. The decisions can seem endless, but has everything been considered?

How about: Is my loved one at risk for suicide?

Increased suicidal ideation has been found in chronic illness populations like chronic fatigue syndrome, myalgic encephalomyelitis, fibromyalgia, and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). Many people with these medical conditions also have chronic pain and sleep disturbances — also known risk factors for suicide. What’s scary is that in chronic illness, your loved one doesn’t have to be clinically depressed in order to contemplate suicide.

Special issues that increase suicidal thoughts in those with chronic illness: 

– Lack of quality medical care to treat complex, chronic illnesses.

– Physical illness that leads to decreased mobility, poor memory, confusion and overall poor quality of life.

– Claims that the illness is “all in your head” by friends, family and healthcare practitioners.

– Withdrawal of love and/or support due to the impact of chronic illness.

– Financial pressures from medical bills, medication costs and the inability to work.

– Feelings of isolation and loneliness.

– Perception that they are a burden to family and friends.

– Loss of hope for recovery or improvement in quality of life.

How can you decrease the likelihood of suicidal thoughts in your loved one with a chronic illness? 

Believe them. The best thing you can do is beleive them when they talk about their symptoms or the way they are feeling. Invisible illnesses — like POTS, fibromyalgia and myalgic encephalomyelitis — have the added difficulty that their pain can’t be easily measured. When most people get sick, they have a fever, swollen glands or runny nose that allows others to see that they are not feeling well. That is not the case for people living with invisible illnesses. What does it look like if a person is dizzy? Can you assess their level of fatigue without feeling it yourself? What does neuropathic pain look like to the outside observer? Believe your loved one!

Decrease loneliness. Many with chronic illness are largely housebound and isolated. This includes many adolescents with POTS who resort to home-schooling, partial days at school and withdrawal from activities due to symptom severity. Sending the occasional text message or email can do wonders. Pick up the phone once in a while to let them know you still care. Human contact is important for everyone, but particularly for the chronically ill.

Reassure them that they are not a burden. Many teens and adults with chronic illnesses want to go to school, work, grocery shopping and lead a “normal” life. If their illness makes this impossible, be understanding when you need to help with routine chores and errands. Willingly assist them with personal care, when necessary. Imagine how you would feel if the roles were switched, and reassure them that you love them.

Seek the best medical care. Finding the right doctor who listens and cares is important for both mental and physical health. If their doctor doesn’t understand their illness or isn’t actively helping, change doctors! Finding the right doctor can mean the difference between being homebound and resuming some semblance of a normal life.

Don’t be afraid to ask if they are contemplating suicide. The question won’t make them feel suicidal, but it opens a conversation about their wellbeing before they make an attempt. Many people who consider suicide don’t really want to die, but can’t fathom how to continue living like this. A good counselor who understands chronic illness can be invaluable in working with all of the feelings that accompany chronic illness.

Take talk of suicide seriously. People who talk about suicide are 30 times more likely than average to kill themselves, and 80 percent who die by suicide show some warning signs – saying goodbye, giving away prized possessions, etc. If they are talking about suicide, stay with them and call for help. Connect them with a professional who can help them re-frame their depression, anxiety or issues relating to their illness immediately.  Following up with a good counselor is imperative.

If you know someone who is contemplating suicide, it is imperative that you act now. Hoping that their thoughts will pass with time is risky. Please seek immediate professional help, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK, or text HOPELINE at 741741 with the word “start” to get the assistance that you need.

A version of this piece originally appeared on Standing Up to POTS.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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