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Two New Studies Validate That Young People With Chronic Illness Are More Likely to Struggle With Their Mental Health

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Living with a chronic illness isn’t easy. This probably isn’t news to you if managing an illness is part of your lived reality. Two new studies, however, shed light on the mental health impact of growing up with a chronic illness.

The first study, published Monday in the journal Development and Psychopathology, was conducted by researchers in London. Researchers looked at data from 7,000 young people previously collected in the 1990s whose parents reported they lived with a chronic illness. They then compared the rates of mental illness, such as anxiety and depression, among those with a reported chronic illness at ages 10, 13 and 15.

Researchers found that kids with a chronic illness were nearly twice as likely to also have a mental health condition at ages 10 and 13. By the time these kids reached age 15, they were 60% more likely to have a mental health condition compared to their peers without a chronic illness. The study’s authors note this isn’t a new or surprising finding, but it strengthens evidence about co-occurring mental health conditions in children with chronic illness.

The data collected from young people in the 1990s and reexamined in this study also included other environmental factors that can impact a child’s mental health, including home life, social groups, bullying and health-related school absences. Among these additional factors, health-related school absenteeism was found to have the biggest impact on young people’s mental health as they grew up, followed by bullying.

“Chronic illness disrupts children’s normal lives, and this can affect their development and wellbeing,” study author Ann Marie Brady said in a statement, adding:

If children with chronic conditions are more likely to miss school, or experience bullying, that can make the situation worse. Keeping an eye on school attendance and looking out for evidence of bullying amongst children with chronic illness may help to identify those who are most at risk.

Missing school because of chronic illness was also a major factor that contributed to increased anxiety in students with chronic illness, according to a systematic review published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry on Monday. The review looked specifically at seven chronic illnesses, including asthma, congenital heart disease, diabetes, epilepsy, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), juvenile idiopathic arthritis and sickle cell disease.

The review suggested 20 to 50% of kids diagnosed with any of these conditions also had a co-occurring anxiety disorder. Those who had a chronic illness and an anxiety disorder were more likely to miss school days, creating a cycle that puts young people with a chronic condition at risk for worse mental health outcomes. In addition, researchers in this paper noted that kids who also had anxiety were at increased risk for worse chronic illness symptoms.

“Associated with significant implications, the combination of anxiety disorders and a physical disease presents the potential for worsened physical disease outcomes,” said the review’s lead author, Vanessa Cobham, Ph.D., in a statement. “Health professionals working with children and adolescents with chronic medical conditions should routinely screen for the presence of anxiety disorders in order to provide the best possible care to these youth.”

The findings of both new studies validate what many people with chronic illness experience from a young age. Living with chronic illness adds additional stress to everyday activities people without a chronic condition or disability take for granted. These experiences can start for many people in childhood and continue throughout the lifespan.

“I think the emotional aspect of being chronically ill is the most invisible and sometimes the worst aspect,” shared Mighty contributor Naomi, adding:

It’s not just the medical burden of symptoms, but the day-to-day activities that become an emotional burden because of how difficult they are to do. Things that able-bodied people take for granted and don’t think twice about, like getting dressed, or having a wash, or getting up to make a cup of coffee.

Header image via Joseph Gonzalez/Unsplash

Originally published: May 5, 2020
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