We Need to Talk About Chronic Illness and Suicide

Content Warning: This article discusses sensitive topics of mental illness and suicide as it relates to rare and chronic illness.

There’s no easy way to talk about suicide. This article won’t do justice to the stories, memories, and experiences of people whose lives have been impacted by suicide, who are struggling with thoughts of suicide, or who have died by suicide. The topic is broad and complex, and needs to be spoken about and examined through many different lenses.

We would like to take a moment to talk about the need for conversation about the relationship between suicide and rare, neglected, and chronic illnesses. An article in the Guardian discusses a study that links 10% of suicide to chronic illness. According to a study from the University of Waterloo, young people (age 15-30) with chronic conditions face a staggeringly high increased risk of death by suicide. Specifically, University of Waterloo’s research demonstrates that young people with chronic conditions have a 28% higher rate of suicidal thoughts, and a 134% increased risk of  plans to die by suicide. The suicide attempt rate was reported to be 364% higher in this group. Professor Mark Ferro added that the risk was especially high in the time period following the diagnosis.

The relationship between mental illness and chronic illness is complicated, and there are both similarities and variations between the specific challenges different patient groups face. Overall, for a variety of reasons, people with chronic illnesses have higher rates of mental illness, and the challenges of each condition can feed into each other.

Ferro added that when a doctor treats a person with a chronic illness, they may become so focused on addressing physical concerns that they neglect to discuss mental health needs.

It’s no secret that long-term illness and chronic pain can affect quality-of-life. The symptoms are painful and unpleasant to say the least, and often create isolation, frustration, uncertainty and other emotional hurdles. Many patients discuss the grief of coming to terms with the realization that their life and goals may take a new shape, one they had not originally imagined.

People with invisible and rare illnesses speak of an additional source of stress adding to the strain on their mental health: because their symptoms aren’t visible, many people don’t believe or understand that their illness is real. From dismissive doctors to frustrating social encounters, many people live not only with the physical pain of the condition, but the emotional pain of having their experience denied and their voices quieted.

When a condition is rare or under-diagnosed, a patient may find that the people around them, and even their doctors, haven’t heard of their disorders. Many people are given advice that isn’t helpful, or is even harmful, because their condition is misunderstood. It’s harder to get adequate treatment from an informed doctor, and without support, this can lead to a sense of hopelessness.

This is a difficult reality that many people with chronic and invisible illnesses live with, and we don’t want to downplay the fact that so many patients are not getting the support they need. However, we do want to thank the advocacy groups, friends, families, and patients that are working to change this, to promote awareness, and provide patients with support and adequate treatment. We want to encourage a further conversation in the world about how we can do more for people in physical and emotional pain, how we can make invisible illnesses seen, and what actual measures can be taken to translate these words into action.

On World Suicide Prevention Day, we want to take a moment to remember and honor all of the vibrant, diverse lives in our community that have been lost to suicide, and to offer support to the people who are struggling with suicide-loss. And finally, we want to say that if you are currently struggling right now, we are one tiny part of a world of people who are here rooting for you, who want to fight alongside you. We know the physical and emotional pain is real, but help is there for you. You are loved; you are not alone.

If you need to talk, help is available to you at: 1-800-273-8255.

Check out more suicide hotlines around the world at suicidehotlines.net, and additional resources from the International Association for Suicide Prevention.

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