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By Catherine Reynolds, MHA Communications Associate

When we think about cancer, heart disease, or diabetes, we don’t wait years to treat them. We work to address these conditions before Stage 4. We begin with prevention. And when people are in the first stage of those diseases, and have a persistent cough, high blood pressure, or high blood sugar, we try immediately to reverse these symptoms.

But did you know the risk of developing mental health conditions is often higher in individuals with serious medical illnesses, such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes?

For those struggling with a cancer diagnosis, screening for mental health conditions is also crucial

In fact, studies have shown that anywhere from 8-24% of people with cancer are also living with depression. Suicide is also more common in those living with chronic health conditions.

However, the warning signs are frequently discounted by patients and family members, who mistakenly assume feeling depressed is normal for people struggling with serious health conditions.

Screening for mental health conditions in cancer patients is all too rare. A recent study found that eight out of ten women with breast cancer were never even told about the possible impact cancer would have on their mental health.

For some, their providers simply aren’t trained to recognize signs of mental health conditions. There is often lack of clarity and consistency in the cancer community on what depression is and looks like. Between busy oncological settings where doctors often lack the skills to identify mental health conditions and the expenses of cancer treatment, many living with cancer are forced to see their mental health as secondary to their cancer diagnosis.

For others, the overlapping symptoms between cancer and depression such as fatigue, lack of sleep, and decreased appetite make recognizing depression difficult. When you are dealing with a population that is routinely exposed to threats of life, it can be hard to differentiate what is an expected reaction to a cancer diagnosis and treatment versus signs they are experiencing a mental health condition.

But for everyone, it seems certain that by not addressing mental health concerns, those with cancer can be at greater risk.

Depression has been linked to several adverse cancer-related medical outcomes including longer hospital admissions and being less likely to follow treatment plans. 

MHA’s Online Screening Program has seen over 10,000 people who have screened for a mental health conditions self-reported a cancer diagnosis. Compared to the general population, screeners who self-reported cancer were more likely to want to take action on their mental health.

Perhaps they know that the sooner a person with cancer gets help for their mental health concerns, the sooner they can fully focus on fighting cancer.

There is growing public interest in whether treatment of psychological distress can alter the course of cancer and there is good reason to believe it could! Mental health screening can save lives and has been linked to increased survival among those living with cancer.

One such study found that the treatment and improvement of depression in metastatic breast cancer, and improvement of depressive symptoms within the first year, was associated with longer average survival times by 28.5 months compared with those that experienced an increase in depressive symptoms.

However, the majority of those being treated for cancer who are experiencing psychological distress were not receiving counseling or psychological treatment. Researchers have suggested the need for routine mental health screening in oncology settings. Self-report instruments like screening are quick, easy and inexpensive and don’t have to be administered by a professional, something Mental Health America (MHA) has been working on since 2014.

Our Screening Program has helped over 4 million people take the first step in getting help, with a variety of anonymous, scientifically-based screens to choose from. When it comes to cancer, we continue to collected data from help seeking individuals who self-reported a cancer diagnosis, and direct them to resources and supports based on their results – but there is still so much more that we can do to integrate healthcare.

Health systems and related stakeholders must commit to understanding and integrating the individual, their needs, and the dueling conditions which impact their lives in order to effectively identify tools and strategies that reduce the tension among providers of care, services, and supports, and allow the whole individual to emerge along a pathway to recovery.