Chronic Illness and Mental Health (Part 1)

This is the first in a series of blogs contributed by our PM clinician Andrea Rawson,  who will introduce you to mental health issues associated with chronic illness.  She will explain how psychotherapy can help families maintain resiliency and thrive while supporting their loved ones during their journey.  Andrea has two practice locations in the GTA and provides access to collaborative care with PM psychiatrists via the Psychotherapy Matters Virtual Clinic (PMVC) for her clients.

The prevalence of chronic illness is increasing.  One out of four children, and one out of two adults experience a chronic health condition (1). Individuals must manage the disruptions that their symptoms cause including unpredictable pain, low energy, and a sense that their body may betray them at any moment. It does not come as surprise to learn that depression and anxiety are often visitors to those who are living with chronic illness.

Chronic illness also takes a toll on our most important and precious relationships. The demands of chronic illness add stress to everyday family functioning. Families must now navigate the health care system, manage work schedules, make time for lifestyle changes, draw on extended family or community support, and continue meeting the needs of the “well members” in the family.

Research outcomes on the impact of a parent’s illness on a child suggest that the impact depends on the age of the child, the severity of the course of treatment, the degree of disruption to family life, marital satisfaction and support, and the parent’s psychological functioning (2).  Parents caring for a child living with a significant chronic illness have an added burden of stress on parenting and care-giving. Parents of children with illness are at risk of suffering PTSD and traumatic levels of stress at the time of diagnosis, during treatment, and even long after the onset of the illness. (3).

Making time to attend to emotional and relational issues when you are dealing with chronic illness is important whether it is your own illness or an illness of a family member. When there is so much effort and care being put into the physical body, how do you make sure you are tending to your emotional, psychological and relational needs? It can seem like a cruel joke to suggest there is yet something else you need to do to keep yourself well.

The first place to start is to recognize what you are already doing and what is already working. You no doubt have things already in your life that help you deal with your emotions and strengthen precious relationships. Noticing and intentionally growing those practices need not take much time.

Talking to a therapist can also help. There are a few myths about psychotherapy that keep people away from meeting with a therapist. The first is that therapy is a long process that takes a big time commitment of weekly sessions. In fact, many psychotherapies are brief in nature. Sometimes one session is all a person needs. Or, some people check in with a therapist once a month, every few months, or when they just need to work through an issue.

Another myth about psychotherapy is that if you see a therapist you are admitting that your very real physical problems are “just all in your head”. This is particularly true for people who have been living with a chronic illness that has not always been well understood or diagnosed. A suggestion to see a therapist may feel like you are being blamed for a physical manifestation you created in your own mind: you are at fault for your symptoms. Part of healing may require working through these feelings with a trusted therapist.

Dealing with your emotional and relational issues will not resolve a chronic illness but when you are doing better emotionally you often feel better physically and interpersonally. All the parts of us: body, mind and soul work and interact with each other. Making time to care for all aspects of yourself is a worthwhile investment for your overall wellbeing.


  1.  Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. (2015, August 26). Chronic Disease Overview. Retreived May 18, 2017 from
  2. Weingarten, K., and Worthen M. (2017). Unreliable Bobies: A Follow-up Twenty Years Later by a Mother and Daughter about the Impact of Illness and Disability on their Lives. Family Process. 19, 262-277
  3. Alderfer, M., Annunziato, R., Cnaan, A., & Kazak, A. (2005). Patterns of posttraumatic stress in parents of childhood cancer survivors. Journal of Family Psychology, 19, 430-44

The views expressed in these blogs are the author’s own and not necessarily reflective of those of Psychotherapy Matters.  Information provided here and anywhere else on is for learning purposes only and should not be used to guide treatment of clients/patients. Copyright © 2017

Andrea Rawson
Andrea Rawson, Registered Social Worker

Andrea has over 10 years experience in working with individuals, couples and families in the greater Toronto area. She is a registered social worker with the Ontario College of Social Workers and affiliate member of the Ontario Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. She has practiced therapy in a variety of places including private practice, children 's mental health agencies, and internationally in a diverse cultural setting. She has a particular interest working with families touched by medical concerns, disabilities, special needs, emotional issues, and the everyday stresses of family life. What she appreciates about her work is that it allows her to walk with people through difficult times and help them find the hope that things do get better. Visit her website for more information.

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