Living with a chronic illness or disability can be challenging, but the effects may at times be more challenging than the difficulty itself. Other members of society, including family and friends, may view a disability as a defect or disadvantage, and many people may look at those who have a chronic illness or disability with pity.

Many individuals coping with illness and disability are able to develop or adapt their lifestyle and routines to accommodate it, but some individuals face the reality of permanent changes. When emotional, mental, or interpersonal concerns arise as the result of chronic illness or disability, a therapist or other mental health professional may be able to offer help and support.

Understanding Chronic Illness and Disability

A disability is defined as an impairment of the mind or body that restricts or limits a person’s ability to engage in certain activities and interact with society or the world. A person who has a disability may also experience certain participation restrictions to typical daily activities. Between 37 and 57 million Americans (about 1 in 5 people) live with a disability.

Many different types of disabilities exist, and a person may have a disability that is not noticeable by others. Disability may be progressive, result from an injury or illness, or be associated with a long-term condition and may affect:

  • Vision, movement, or hearing
  • The ability to think, learn, remember, or communicate
  • Mental health
  • Relationships

Chronic illness—a condition that lasts longer than three months and can typically be managed but not cured—is believed to affect nearly half of all adult Americans, as well as approximately 8% of children under age 17. There are many types of chronic illness, and some, such as asthma and diabetes, may be managed fairly easily. Other conditions, such as heart disease, cancer, and stroke, may be more difficult to manage and may cause an increased risk of death. Disability may sometimes result from illness. Degenerative conditions in particular may lead to diminished function.

 

Therapy to Address Illness and Disability

Following diagnosis of a chronic illness or development of a disability, an individual may experience confusion, frustration, or fear. Necessary lifestyle changes may make one feel stressed, resentful, or overwhelmed. The support of a therapist or other mental health professional is often beneficial as an individual begins to adapt and cope with any effects of illness or disability.The support of a therapist or other mental health professional is often beneficial as an individual begins to adapt and cope with any effects of illness or disability.

Mental health professionals can help normalize the emotions a person is experiencing, help an individual explore ways to address and resolve any troubling feelings, and offer support as an individual determines how to resume life after physical or health changes have occurred. A person recently affected by illness or disability may find it challenging to maintain a view of one’s selfthat is separate from one’s disability. A therapist can help a person clarify and address this and similar concerns.

A therapist may include an individual’s partner, family members, or close friends in a session, as discussion of how a person’s loved ones can best support and help that person may be an important step in the recovery and adaptation process. When family members or loved ones are affected by a person’s illness or disability, any issues that arise may often be discussed and resolved in therapy. An individual with a chronic illness or disability may also find support groups or group therapy to be helpful.

Caring for an individual who has an illness or disability may be overwhelming or stressful for caregivers, especially when a disability or illness is sudden or unexpected. When this is the case, therapy may also be helpful, and caregivers can address areas of stress or concern and develop their strengths as advocates and caregivers.