Depression and Post Traumatic Stress
Childhood cancer is a major crisis, constantly heaping financial, emotional and physical demands on a family.
The stress you will experience is great, and your normal patterns of behaviour will inevitably be altered to some degree.
Worry, fear, dread, fatigue, poor eating, inability to concentrate – all of these are normal responses to the trauma of childhood cancer. When they do not go away, become worse, or interfere with daily life, they may be a sign of developing depression.
Often, parents cope well during therapy, but suffer badly when it ends. Intense anxiety may erupt weeks or months after the crisis of treatment, attacking when you think you are coping well.
In medical terms, depression is a specific illness, not just a general “low mood”. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a distinct illness that can develop after a life-crisis like cancer. You may find it difficult to differentiate between them, and seeking medical advice is very important.
Symptoms of Depression
- Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
- Waking early, but no desire to face the world
- Constant fatigue, a feeling of heavy limbs
- Feeling restless, tense, anxious, irritable or angry
- Poor concentration, slow processing skills and difficulty making decisions.
- Loss of interest in activities that previously made you feel happy and relaxed.
- Reckless behaviour such as excessive drinking or taking drugs.
- Poor appetite, weight loss and no interest in food
- Overeating (comfort eating) and weight gain
- Feeling worthless, inadequate, guilty or ashamed
- Difficulty feeling emotion – feeling “numb”
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Decreased sex drive
- Social withdrawal
- Loss of hope
- Thoughts of suicide
Symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Nightmares and flashbacks (repeatedly reliving a stressful event such as diagnosis)
- Avoiding things, places or people associated with your child’s cancer experience
- Frightening or unwanted thoughts relating to your child’s cancer experience
- Symptoms of depression (see above)
Some people are more likely to develop depression or PTSD. Risk factors are:
- High stress levels
- Visually impaired parents
- Pre-existing mental health conditions
- Addictions such as substance abuse and gambling
- Separation of the family during treatment
- Mothers from minority communities
- Lack of community support
- Limited formal education
- Low or no income
- Single parents
Strong support from family and friends, and a good relationships with your child’s medical team can reduce your risks of depression and PTSD. Having access to correct information about your child’s cancer will also reduce your risk.
Many parents fail to recognize the destructive power of depression and PTSD. Both sap the energy needed to care for yourself and others, and can quickly destroy self confidence and hope.
If you, or your partner, have any of the above symptoms for more than a few weeks, seek professional help. Treatment may involve counselling and/or medication. Talk to your primary doctor about what is likely to work best for you.
Many parents caring for a child with cancer experience depression or PTSD. There is no shame in these conditions or in asking for professional help. Seeking support early will significantly boost your quality of life, and that of your family.