Teens, Cystic Fibrosis and Emotional Health

Siri Vaeth, MSW and Lindsey Martins, MSW

The teen years can be tough – whether or not you have cystic fibrosis. Physical, intellectual and emotional changes are happening simultaneously. Your peer group is probably more important than ever, and it is normal to want to fit in, and not stand out as “different.” Having CF, with all its challenges and time-consuming treatments can be a huge burden. If you go through periods of depression, you are not alone. Teens with CF report being depressed for many reasons that you may be familiar with: feeling physically unwell, being frustrated by the challenges of endless daily treatments, experiencing negative side effects from medications, missing major life events (sports, parties, concerts, proms) due to hospitalizations, and feeling different from their peers.

Teens with CF are more prone to anxiety and depression, and a lack of sleep can worsen the situation. Few teenagers achieve the recommended nine hours of sleep each night, and because of the CF, your sleep may be regularly disrupted because of your medications and cough. In addition to putting you at greater risk of infection, the lack of sleep can lead to dramatic mood swings.

Adolescence is a time of experimentation, and this may include many things: new hair colors, body piercings, styles of dress, drug and alcohol use, and sexual activity. Just because you have CF doesn’t mean that you are immune to the pressures of the above experimentation. Unfortunately, the physical and emotional impact of this experimentation can sometimes be much harder for teens with CF.

Sometimes peer pressure is not the issue. Teens with CF have said they use alcohol or drugs to self medicate due to depression and anxiety, and to seek a temporary relief from the challenges of the disease. Depression also contributes to self-harm, namely “cutting,” as well as eating disorders. We know that the higher the level of depression and anxiety, the less likely it is that you’ll adhere to your treatments. It is very common for a negative spiral to begin.

Your parents CF care team and outside support system can help you to find support and develop coping mechanisms. These can include therapy, sports, artistic expression, spirituality and participation in CF-related or other social support networks. The social worker at your center wants you to feel comfortable talking with her. The most important thing is that you reach out to someone, so that you feel less alone and can get the support and resources you need.