How to support cancer patients during mental health struggles
Cancer can bring a wide range of emotions for patients, both after a diagnosis and during treatment. Coping with side effects and a changing body can become difficult. While most feelings are healthy and to be expected, some cancer patients can have an increased risk of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
We spoke with licensed clinical psychologist Catherine Powers-James, Ph.D., about signs caregivers should look for and how you can support a loved one through mental health challenges.
Learn the signs of a mental health struggle
While anyone can experience depression and anxiety, certain factors can make certain cancer patients more likely to struggle with their mental health.
“Being male, having advanced cancer, or being older can predispose patients to depression,” explains Powers-James. “If someone has a history of depression or bipolar disorder, they can be more vulnerable in a cancer population.”
If you’re concerned about your loved one’s mental health, Powers-James says there are certain things to look out for.
If you notice new or worsening substance abuse issues, for instance, that can be a sign of trouble. It’s also important to pay attention if you notice your loved one engaging in reckless behavior or dealing with feelings of hopelessness or not finding joy in things they used to like, it’s important to pay attention. Also, excessive planning for the care of friends and family after their death could be a red flag for suicide.
Powers-James stresses these warning signs don’t mean that someone is suicidal, but someone who exhibits these signs may still benefit from mental health support.
Start a conversation about mental health
If you are concerned about mood shifts or other out-of-the-ordinary behavior from your loved one, start a conversation with them and their care team.
“We don’t want family members or caregivers to be afraid of bringing it up. Having a conversation with someone does not increase their risk of suicide,” says Powers-James. “Do not dismiss or change the subject. Being blunt is OK.”
Seek professional help
Managing a loved one’s mental health issues can be overwhelming – and can take a toll on your mental health. That’s why it’s so important to seek professional help for your loved one – and you, if needed.
Talking to a mental health care provider can greatly improve patients’ and caregivers’ quality of life as they work through their emotions. It’s also a crucial step in preventing self-harm and suicide. Powers-James recommends contacting your insurance company or asking your health care provider to recommend a psychologist, psychiatrist, social work counselor or another mental health professional you can speak with.
MD Anderson patients and caregivers can ask their care team about a referral to the Psychiatric Oncology Center or Social Work for mental health services, which include symptom assessment and medical management, stress management, sexual counseling and therapy for families, couples, children and adolescents.
If your loved one is threatening suicide or you have other immediate concerns, call 9-1-1 or the Suicide & Crisis Hotline at 9-8-8. You can also take your loved one to the nearest emergency room.
Create a safety plan
After mental health help has been initiated, caregivers and patients can work toward the common goal of reducing the risk of self-harm or suicide. to work together, Powers-James recommends developing a safety plan. Consider these questions:
What are my triggers?
What do I do if I’m experiencing these triggers?
If I’m experiencing these, how do I work through it?
What should I avoid (alcohol, etc.)?
At what point do I cross the line and need to go to the emergency room?
By developing answers to these questions, you and your loved one can better work together to identify and manage mental health issues.