How to support cancer patients during mental health struggles Anderson Cancer Center

Cancer can bring a variety of emotions to patients, both after diagnosis and during treatment. Dealing with side effects and a changing body can become difficult. While most feelings are healthy and to be expected, some cancer patients may be at increased risk for depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.

We spoke to licensed clinical psychologist Catherine Powers-James, Ph.D., about signs caregivers should look out for and how you can support a loved one through mental health challenges.

Learn the signs of a mental health struggle

While anyone can suffer from 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 may predispose patients to depression,” explains Powers-James. “If someone has a history of depression or bipolar disorder, they may 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.

For example, noticing new or worsening substance abuse problems can be a sign of trouble. It’s also important to pay attention when you notice your loved one being reckless or dealing with feelings of hopelessness or not finding joy in things they used to enjoy. It’s important to pay attention. Also, excessive planning for caring for friends and family after their death could be a warning sign of suicide.

Powers-James emphasizes that these warning signs do not mean someone is suicidal, but someone showing these signs may still benefit from psychological support.

Start a conversation about mental health

If you’re concerned about your loved one’s mood swings or other unusual behavior, start a conversation with them and their care team.

“We don’t want family members or carers to be afraid to speak up. Talking to someone doesn’t increase the risk of suicide,” says Powers-James. “Don’t drop the subject or change it. Being blunt is okay.”

Seek professional help

Coping with the mental health issues of a loved one can be overwhelming — and it can impact your mental health. That’s why it’s so important to seek professional help for your loved ones—and for you, if necessary.

Talking to a mental health provider can significantly improve the quality of life for patients and caregivers as they process their emotions. It’s also a crucial step in preventing self-harm and suicide. Powers-James recommends contacting your insurance company or asking your healthcare provider to recommend a psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker, or other mental health professional to speak to.

MD Anderson Patients and caregivers can ask their care team for a referral to the Center for Psychiatric Oncology or Social Work for mental health services, which include symptom assessment and medical treatment, stress management, sex 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 and Crisis Hotline at 9-8-8. You can also take your loved one to the nearest emergency room.

Create a security plan

After mental health support is 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 security plan. Consider these questions:

  • What are my triggers?
  • What do I do when I experience these triggers?
  • If I experience this, how do I deal with it?
  • What should I avoid (alcohol etc.)?
  • When do I cross the border 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.

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.

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