Mental Health First Aid: Prioritizing Cancer Patients, Survivors and Caregivers Mental Health Together

For the 1.6 million people in the United States diagnosed with cancer every year [1], mental health issues often play a significant role in their everyday struggles. The focus of cancer care is often only on the physical aspects of the disease, and many fail to recognize the impact cancer can have on mental health. Nearly one third of all cancer patients and survivors are at risk for a mental health issue [2]. Furthermore, people alongside those struggling with cancer, such as caregivers or loved ones, may also experience mental health issues. It is evident that quality social support yields improved longevity and quality of life for cancer patients [3].With many barriers to seeking professional help existing for people affected by cancer it is important to help them get the help and resources they need.

For those diagnosed with cancer, mental health treatment, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, has proven to decrease symptoms of depression, anxiety, and fatigue [4]. However, many people struggling with cancer, as well as their loved ones, feel that professional mental health treatment can be quite costly as well as time consuming [5]. Due to this unfortunate reality, it is vital that people touched by cancer are knowledgeable about how to recognize someone struggling with their mental health. Mental Health First Aid, a course that seeks to teach people about how to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness or substance use disorders [6], can act as a supplement to professional therapy and counseling for people affected by cancer who are looking to manage their mental health challenges.

To learn more about Mental Health First Aid, and its implications in the cancer space, I spoke with Bryan Honeycutt, a longtime Livestrong Volunteer, and current Certified Mental Health First Aid Instructor.

What is Mental Health First Aid?

Mental Health First Aid is like CPR, as it equips people with basic lifesaving skills to use when a health concern may arise. Mental Health First Aid’s goal is to prepare people to recognize the signs and symptoms that are associated with possible mental health concerns. This course focuses on how to recognize the emotions and behavior that someone may exhibit prior to or during a mental health episode, by providing the tools to recognize someone struggling and get them the proper help they need. Furthermore, Mental Health First Aid provides training surrounding the language needed to engage in conversations with those experiencing mental health concerns that will ideally lead to someone seeking professional help. The specific language that Mental Health First Aid encourages is non-judgmental and seeks to overcome the stigmas that unfortunately exist within our society regarding therapy and counseling for mental health.

Stigmas and Challenges Presented by Cancer and How Mental Health First Aid Can Help

“Mental health Health First Aid is really about being human” according to Bryan and should be a tool applied to everyday situations. Regarding cancer, Bryan says that Mental Health First Aid is key in understanding how to have a conversation with someone who is trying to cope with anything weighing on their mental health. “There are so many stigmas attached to having to tell someone ‘I am dealing with cancer’ that are similar to having to tell someone ‘I am dealing with a mental illness.” Knowing how to have a conversation with someone experiencing stigma regarding their cancer experience is where Mental Health First Aid plays a huge role.

Stigma can manifest itself in many ways, but is often related to a lack of knowledge about a lived experience. A global study done by Livestrong in 2007 [7] found that out of more than 4,500 adults, only 40% of respondents felt well-informed about cancer. Furthermore, informational interviews with survivors and cancer care professionals revealed a common theme of an inability to openly discuss cancer within their respective countries. Mental Health First Aid seeks to overcome stigma, encourage conversations about cancer, and create a space to truly listen to survivors, not by offering advice, but rather giving them reassurance and guidance towards the right forms of help. This not only helps with the mental struggles the survivor may experience, but also chips away at the stigma that exists regarding the lack of knowledge around cancer. Importantly, people affected by cancer may vary in the degree and types of mental health struggles they experience, often depending on whether someone is a survivor or a caregiver.

Specific Mental Health Struggles with Cancer

For survivors, the mental health distress they experience often comes directly from having to face cancer in a physical way, the stigmas that come along with diagnosis, and a possible lack of social support. For caregivers and loved ones, the mental health struggles related to cancer usually come from having to experience someone they care about suffering from disease, questioning how to support their loved one, and deciphering if the support they are providing is enough. The mental health of both groups is challenged when it comes to dealing with cancer. Overall, it is important to realize that different people will have different experiences, and Mental Health First Aid allows us to meet people where they are and offer responsive support. Getting someone the help they need does not always mean resolving the issue on the spot, but rather providing a warm transfer to the necessary help based on their specific mental health struggles.

A common shared struggle between those facing cancer and their loved ones, is the fatigue that comes from the points or “milestones” within one’s cancer journey. For example, a cancer patient and their loved one may expect to feel or may be told by others they should feel a certain way after a particular event occurs along their cancer journey. When a patient and caregiver don’t feel the way they expected to or were told they should feel, it can weigh very heavily on their mental health. Anticipation fatigue may also manifest itself after treatment or in remission, as those affected by cancer may still suffer from a fear of cancer coming back. The conversations around Mental Health First Aid seek to combat that worry, says Bryan. “Being able to share feelings and communicate with loved ones after treatment is incredibly important…it is important that the individual and their network understand the tools they have to aid in those worries’’. A common saying within the Livestrong community is that “cancer may leave your body, but it doesn’t leave your life.” Mental health concerns are common throughout the lifespan of someone affected by cancer, stressing the need for mental health intervention, to get at the root of stress caused by having experienced such a devastating disease. These interventions may include support groups, online resources, and professional mental health care.

Importance of Seeking and Encouraging Professional Help

While Mental Health First Aid can be a phenomenal tool utilized by anyone in everyday life, it is not intended to diagnose someone with a mental health issue. It should not act as a substitute for professional mental health care. Mental Health First Aid training seeks to give people the confidence needed to have deep conversations with someone about their mental health, but also prepares individuals to tell someone they should seek professional help. When discussing the value of professional therapy and mental health treatment, Bryan asked me an incredible question: “can you think of anyone in your life in which their only job is to listen to you, listen to what you feel, and take it in and help you find the right pathway and offer you the right help, with no other agenda?”. Those affected by cancer need someone to talk to, but more importantly they need someone who can consistently listen to them, and address their struggles head on with them, using therapeutic methods that have been proven to yield great results.

Mental Health Resources

Written by: Jason Lyons, Livestrong Intern

Jason Lyons was a Spring 2022 Mission Intern at Livestrong. He is currently a student at St. Edward’s University, and will graduate in May 2023 with a degree in Behavioral Neuroscience and a minor in Business. Jason hopes to pursue a career in behavioral health.

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