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Patients understanding of depression associated with chronic physical illness: a qualitative study

Sarah L Alderson*, Robbie Foy, Liz Glidewell and Allan O House

Author Affiliations

Institute of Health Sciences, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK

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BMC Family Practice 2014, 15:37  doi:10.1186/1471-2296-15-37

Published: 20 February 2014



Detection of depression can be difficult in primary care, particularly when associated with chronic illness. Patient beliefs may affect detection and subsequent engagement with management. We explored patient beliefs about the nature of depression associated with physical illness.


A qualitative interview study of patients registered with general practices in Leeds, UK. We invited patients with coronary heart disease or diabetes from primary care to participate in semi-structured interviews exploring their beliefs and experiences. We analysed transcripts using a thematic approach, extended to consider narratives as important contextual elements.


We interviewed 26 patients, including 17 with personal experience of depression. We developed six themes: recognising a problem, complex causality, the role of the primary care, responsibility, resilience, and the role of their life story. Participants did not consistently talk about depression as an illness-like disorder. They described a change in their sense of self against the background of their life stories. Participants were unsure about seeking help from general practitioners (GPs) and felt a personal responsibility to overcome depression themselves. Chronic illness, as opposed to other life pressures, was seen as a justifiable cause of depression.


People with chronic illness do not necessarily regard depression as an easily defined illness, especially outside of the context of their life stories. Efforts to engage patients with chronic illness in the detection and management of depression may need further tailoring to accommodate beliefs about how people view themselves, responsibility and negative views of treatment.