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Childhood Cancer, COVID-19 and Mental Health

Redkite’s team of social workers share their tips for taking care of your mental health while facing childhood cancer and COVID-19.

What is Mental Health?

Sometimes when we hear the words ‘mental health’ we associate them solely with mental illness. Mental health is for everyone though. And just like our physical health, what keeps it optimal changes from person to person.

Sometimes we can be going about life without even having to think about our mental health because we naturally engage in activities that help look after our well-being. On the other hand, some people might have had experiences, or might have natural sensitivities that make their mental health more vulnerable to fluctuation.

Whatever our situation, our mental health is something that is unique to each of us and our circumstances. It tends to ebb and flow depending on what happens in our lives, and how those circumstances interact with our individual temperaments.

Our mental health is something that is unique to each of us and our circumstances. It tends to ebb and flow depending on what happens in our lives.

How a cancer diagnosis affects mental health

We recognize that having a child diagnosed with cancer involves enormous adversity. Naturally, such an experience poses a threat not only to your child’s physical health, but to their mental health and the well-being of everyone in your family.

We sometimes hear from families that the everyday things they once did to take care of themselves, are no longer achievable given the demands of cancer. Additionally, we’re living through a global pandemic, and this causes concerns for the oncology community that other people don’t have to consider. 

The aim of this article is to acknowledge some of the barriers that oncology families face in maintaining their mental health. It will also offer some suggestions of what might help alleviate some of those barriers.

This article will be focused on general mental health and wellbeing and will not address diagnosed mental health conditions. However, we do recognise that people who are affected by childhood cancer might experience more serious mental health concerns as well. If you would like to discuss your mental health in greater depth, please feel welcome to reach out to a Redkite Social Worker.


Cancer, COVID-19 and Mental Health

We all have feelings of stress and anxiety that rise and fall depending on what’s happening in our lives. These feelings can be helpful when they prompt us to respond to an event effectively.

But that doesn’t mean they feel good. Our mental health is hardest to maintain when conditions are rough and unpredictable. And when we’re met with events that are outside of our control, it’s a lot harder to take action that will help us feel calm again.

Oncology families know these feelings all too well, having been thrown into the unexpected chaos of a cancer diagnosis. Routines previously relied upon might no longer be available, or not as effective under more challenging conditions. Not only that, but there’s now the added layer of COVID-19. From unstable work conditions to heightened health risks and everything in between; COVID-19 represents a host of new stressors for oncology families.

I’d like to acknowledge that oncology families are often busy beyond imagination. Parents tell us it’s hard to allocate any time to their own wellbeing when their child is suffering. With that in mind, health professionals (including myself) might seem out of touch when offering tips for how to manage your mental health and wellbeing. However, oncology parents also teach us that they’re the most effective tool their child has in navigating the cancer experience. And for that reason, good stewardship is important.

Below are a few ideas of what might help to maintain your own mental health through cancer and COVID-19.

There’s a wealth of evidence to say that good sleep, a healthy diet, regular exercise and a mindfulness or meditation routine promote good mental health. If you have the time to keep on top of these activities and they’re beneficial for you then great – keep going. However, oncology families often describe these routines as the ones they wish they had time for, but simply don’t. If this feels like the case for you, it might be worth considering the following points when you’re deciding what to prioritise.

There’s no shortage of socially accepted norms around how we should behave, So, it’s important to pay attention to what you need to stay well. 

There’s no shortage of socially accepted norms around how we should behave, even in times of stress. As a result, we can easily have rigid expectations of ourselves and how we should respond to stress. However, the reality is we can each have unique preferences for what we find restorative based on our own individual temperaments. So, it’s important to pay attention to what you need to stay well. 

What do you need to survive and thrive when you’re under pressure? Do you need more time around people, or do you need time to yourself? Can you make decisions in the moment or would you prefer to weigh things up carefully before acting? Do you need more sleep or less? Do you need to talk through your emotions in depth or do you feel better after quick, solution focused conversations? Whatever your considerations are, understanding your own needs might serve as a grounding base to return to during times of pressure.

New routines such as exercise and meditation, as beneficial as they may be, might be harder to take up when you have pressure from all angles. For now, it might be worth considering what’s worked for you in the past. Has there been another time in your life where you responded well to a high stress situation? What did that look like for you? Would any of those strategies be useful for you now?

Whatever strategies you try, consider them an ongoing practice. Like learning an instrument – you don’t need to be playing in the symphony orchestra overnight.

Being kind to yourself is harder than self-help gurus make it out to be. We regularly receive messages of what the perfect man, woman, parent, friend (the list goes on) should be. The difficulty is that tough times affect our emotions and our ability to live up to ideals. It’s hard enough to feel we’re falling short, without adding shame into the mix as well. 

So cut yourself some slack, if you can. You’re in an extraordinary and very personal situation. And try not to make comparisons to others – everyone has chinks in their armour if you look hard enough.

Keeping connected to others is more challenging than ever with COVID-19 restrictions. Families sometimes tell us it can be surprising who offers them genuine support during their cancer experience, and who doesn’t. Families also tell us that sometimes they need to manage other peoples’ responses to their experience, and this can take a lot of vital energy. So it seems fair to say that relationships are diverse in what they bring to our lives. Different people offer us different things, and this might be more pronounced during times of hardship.

It could be worth considering what your social needs are at present, and which relationships are conducive to your wellbeing.

It could be worth considering what your social needs are at present, and which relationships are conducive to your wellbeing. 

Do you need to be in contact with people regularly? Or do you need just a few key people around who you can call on when you need to? Which relationships build you up and leave you feeling calm, and secure? And which relationships leave you feeling the most stress or anxiety? How can you cultivate the relationships that feel positive for you? And is there any way you can set respectful boundaries in the ones that don’t? Or if your relationships feel healthy and strong but you need a little more support in them now, how might you be able to communicate that?

It might sound cheesy but alignment with a sense of purpose or meaning is said to build peoples’ resilience during times of adversity. Your sense of personal meaning might relate to religion or spirituality, but it doesn’t have to. It can also be derived from having a sense of our own personal values, or what’s important to us. For example, some people find meaning in their work, a hobby or passion project, or a relationship such as being a parent. These things can keep us motivated and having an awareness of them can help us bounce back during times of despair.

So what gets you out of bed in the morning? What’s keeping you going while you, or a member of your family goes through cancer? And how can you stay connected with that?

Sometimes events outside of our control are too overwhelming and it can help to enlist some external support. Reaching out isn’t always easy but you don’t have to manage everything on your own. If you think it would be helpful to talk to someone about your mental health, or any other concerns, feel free to contact a Redkite Social Worker.

Contact us to find out more about our services or to book a session with our social workers.

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