The statistics are shocking.
Compared to the general population, the incidence of depression for cancer patients can be anywhere from two and a half to six and a half times greater, and yet over 70 per cent of these patients do not receive care for their mental health issues.
The Scarborough Hospital’s (TSH’s) Mental Health and Cancer Care programs are helping to address this unmet need through the Psychosocial Oncology Support Team, or ‘POST’, as it is known. The program, which began in the fall of 2012 with just a weekly drop-in clinic for outpatients, has “completely evolved to offer a variety of services to patients at various points of care,” said Dr. David Gratzer, a Psychiatrist at TSH.
Oncology inpatients receive mental health consultations and care. As well, patients of the hospital’s Oncology Clinic have access to several Registered Nurses (RNs) and two General Practitioners specializing in mental health issues, who provide both group and one-on-one support services. There is also an outpatient clinic through the Mental Health program, which offers psychological interventions, such as mindfulness therapy.
For Julie Priestly, the services of the POST program have been a lifesaver. After undergoing chemotherapy and radiation for over three years to treat metastatic breast cancer, the fear and anxiety of living with her disease was becoming overwhelming.
“I cried a lot and my thoughts often led me down dark paths,” said Julie.
“The techniques I learned during the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Group have shown me a new way to change my perspective. They have made an immense difference in coping with anxiety, sleeplessness, restlessness, pain management, and my overall wellbeing. Practicing the techniques regularly significantly lightens my emotional and mental state.”
Kelly Brockington, an RN with the POST program at TSH, adds that the staff “see a lot of people with a background of anxiety and depression and they have told us that being able to access these services has helped them to deal with the ebbs and flow of treatment, and prevented them from sliding back into depression.”
Recently, the program has expanded to offer more online interventions. “We’ve found that as people become sicker, or if they aren’t feeling well after chemotherapy one week, they may not be able to participate in the outpatient services at the hospital. So if a patient misses a week of the group therapy, for instance, they can catch up online, or by listening to that week’s session via an .mp3 player during their next treatment,” said Kelly.
In addition, there are a number of physician- and therapist-approved mindfulness and meditation apps that patients can download to complement the group or individual therapy they are receiving. In the future, the goal is to add more online options, such as chat rooms for patients, and mindfulness groups that can be accessed via Skype.
For Faiza Khalid-Khan, Director of the Mental Health program at TSH, the success of POST lies in its team-based approach. “We’re fortunate to have exceptional staff and physicians in the Mental Health and Cancer Care programs who have worked together to build this program from the ground up over the last three years, and we want to continue to innovate in order to be able to truly address the needs of our patients.”