Twelve years ago, I underwent major back surgery due to a severely herniated disc in my spine. I was 33 years old at the time, my daughter was a newly diagnosed Type 1 diabetic, and we had just moved to a new city. In the aftermath of the operation (recovery took a few months), I was clearly in pain and I was noticeably overwhelmed. Those were the surface symptoms evident to all. The doctor wrote a script for physical therapy and I was sent along my way. The most serious symptom, however, was one that was far more covert and hidden from most people; I was depressed. Of course anyone could understand how, given the circumstances, I might be depressed. But no one made the assumption and no one asked me how I was emotionally coping with the pain, and I certainly wasn’t going to show my true colors (I’ve since learned that my colors are some of my greatest resources). This isn’t an indictment of my friends and supports. I just happened to put on a good show of positive thinking and emotional resilience. It must have been quite a performance as it seemed to convince everyone that I was okay. But inside I was really a mess. So I suffered with depression. Worse even, I suffered in silence.
Where has the medical world dropped the ball?
These days, when someone undergoes a medical operation, the medical world, as a knee jerk reaction, writes a script to see the physical or occupational therapist to treat the consequences of surgery. Yet one of the most common and significant byproducts of surgery is depression and anxiety. Where’s the script to the mental health therapist? Not even a consideration. For someone newly diagnosed with a serious chronic medical condition, where is the script to the counselor? No such reflex can be found in the medical community. This reality is staggering considering the facts. Research by the Nation Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that there is a very high correlation between the advent of a chronic medical condition and mental health issues. More than 40% of people diagnosed with cancer experience depression. In diabetics, the prevalence is around 27% Among those with chronic pain, 50%. In victims of heart attack, the numbers jump to between 40% and 65%. Where is the guidance directing the patient to the counselor to take care of their psychological and emotional needs? All but absent. Consequently, most suffer in silence.
The new reality of a new diagnosis
The truth is that depression and anxiety can be normal responses to chronic medical conditions. The National Institute of Mental Health lists several symptoms of depression, both emotional and physical, that are commonly experienced in the aftermath of a serious medical event. After all, with many medical diagnosis, major shifts in lifestyle are required and limitations that never existed now become part of the daily struggle. Many people feel confined by their new situation and do not know how to recover from the clutches of a trap they can’t release. Suddenly the idea of mortality come into such sharp focus that fear of death casts a pall of doom and creates a block to the enjoyment of life. Mental health related symptoms can often last as long as, or longer than, the medical conditions that caused their onset. Resetting a broken bone is far easier than resetting a broken experience of life.
The light at the end of the office visit
The good news is that depression and anxiety are treatable. Talk therapy is proven to be a very effective way in treating depression and anxiety that stem from medical condition or medically related trauma. Therapy can interrupt the negative thinking patterns that often accompany significant medical traumas. Group therapy can often be just as effective as individual therapy in helping people learn to live well with the challenges of a new medical reality. Stress reduction techniques can be helpful. Sometimes, pharmacological help is needed and a psychiatrist should be consulted. However, research has proven that medication assistance is best maximized along with psychological support.
Get the help that can help
If you have been diagnosed with a chronic medical condition or experience medical related trauma, don’t wait to get the support that can help. Therapy can help you challenge and change the attitudes that contribute to depression and anxiety in the wake of a serious and chronic medical condition.