Mental Health Awareness Month: Kidney Disease and Mental Health
May 23, 2022
Those of us who work closely with kidney patients know all too well that kidney disease takes not only a serious physical toll, but for many people, it also has a major impact on mental health. Mental Health Awareness Month, observed every May, provides us with the perfect opportunity to shine a light on the emotional and mental health impact of kidney disease.
Feelings of stress, depression or anxiety are common among those living with kidney disease as well as their caregivers.
Research has shown that people with chronic kidney disease (CKD) and kidney failure have a 3 to 4 times higher prevalence of depression compared with the general population.
A nationwide survey released by the American Kidney Fund in 2018 found that depression emerged as a leading contributing factor to treatment nonadherence, and a study released this month showed that mental illness is associated with poorer health outcomes among people with self-reported CKD. Both of these findings signal a need to improve management of mental health needs within kidney care.
From published research and through our conversations with the patients that we serve, it is clear that mental health issues are significant among many people living with kidney disease. The diagnosis itself, the stress of taking lots of medicines, the adjustments to lifestyle and diet and being on dialysis can be overwhelming. It’s normal to have emotional ups and downs from time to time, but when those feelings become more frequent or more serious, seeing a mental health professional is important for overall health.
Although most people would not hesitate to see a doctor if they were physically ill, they may be resistant to seeking medical help for mental illness. They may think they should tough it out or perhaps they think mental health professionals only treat severe cases. But mental health is just as important as physical health.
The first step to improving mental health is knowing how to identify the issue. Here are common feelings and experiences for people with kidney disease who have depression or anxiety.
Symptoms of depression differ for each person and may overlap with the side effects of kidney disease and kidney disease treatment. Some symptoms may include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Fatigue or loss of energy
- Anxiety that their life is in the hands of those who care for them and their disease
- Unwanted feelings of dependence on health care providers and the dialysis machine
- Feelings of powerlessness over the disease
- Feelings of lack of control over their schedule and lives
- Inability to stand up to societal pressures at the expense of their own health care needs, such as not following a kidney-friendly food and fluid plan when out with friends
- Feelings of hopelessness as there is ultimately no cure for kidney disease
There are different types of anxiety, which when experienced on a regular basis, can get in the way of normal activities. Some of them include:
- Generalized anxiety: intense fear and worry for little to no reason
- Panic disorder: occurs when one experiences repeated panic attacks. Panic attacks are sudden and intense fear with physical symptoms such as heart racing, difficulty breathing, sweating and feelings of terror.
- Agoraphobia: fear and avoidance of places and situations that might cause feelings of panic, feeling trapped, feeling helpless or embarrassed. This condition can make it difficult to leave home.
- Social anxiety: intense worry about daily social interactions
- Phobias: intense fear of a specific situation or object
There are many resources to help those with the stress and mental health challenges associated with kidney disease. We encourage people to talk to their doctor or social worker about their concerns. Other recommendations include self-help or self-care, including reading self-help books on mental health, exercising, eating kidney-friendly meals, improving your sleep habits and talking to your social network or joining a support group.
For more information and resources, consult the mental health and kidney disease page on the American Kidney Fund’s website.
LaVarne A. Burton is President and CEO of the American Kidney Fund.