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Very few people go through life without any chronic health challenges. Cancer, heart disease, chronic pain, diabetes, mental illnesses, and more touch every family at some point.

And often mental illnesses and other chronic conditions co-occur. People with cancer often have depression; people with schizophrenia often have diabetes; and people with chronic pain often have both physical and behavioral health challenges.

We know that the underlying environment – the “social determinants” of health – plays a role in the development of both physical and mental health conditions.

There is a lack of uniformity across the health spectrum in how illnesses are categorized and deemed as chronic diseases and chronic conditions. Not only does this create confusion, but it may lead professionals across the spectrum to focus on specific illnesses and disregard other aspects of the person being treated, including co-occurring issues like mental health conditions and broader societal conditions such as poverty, trauma, and racism.

To effectively treat an individual, we must look at the whole person, which means examining the connections that exist between traditional chronic physical conditions and mental health concerns. Once a condition is diagnosed, it often becomes not just the primary diagnosis for health care providers, but the primary lens through which that individual is seen. And when a second condition is observed, there is often unnecessary tension among the providers, the individual and sometimes their family, as to what diagnosis takes precedence and who should take the lead in organizing and managing care and support.

Health systems and related stakeholders must commit to understanding and integrating the individual, their needs, and the dueling conditions which impact their lives to effectively identify tools and strategies that reduce the tension among providers of care, services, and supports, and allow the whole individual to emerge along a pathway to recovery.

Specific Chronic Illnesses and Mental Health