teen depression

Mental Health Awareness Month: Teen Depression During And After Cancer Treatment (Part 1)

When it comes to depression in teenage cancer patients, there’s actually some good news.

teen depression

But this doesn’t mean that teen depression isn’t still a serious issue that we face with our cancer patients.

Here’s what you should know about the causes of teen depression during and after cancer treatment.

What Causes Teen Depression During Cancer Treatment?

Depression is something that everyone involved in the teen’s life needs to be on the lookout for. Family and friends as well as the medical team should all know what the signs of teen depression are.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), signs of depression to watch out for in kids and teens who have cancer include:

  • Increased aggression or hostility
  • Increased crying
  • Unusual hyperactivity
  • Expressing feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • Frequent self-criticism
  • Frequent daydreaming
  • Loss of interest in usual activities and hobbies

Being around their peers and taking part in their normal daily routine is important for teens. Developmentally, that’s what they should be doing: having growth away from family and with friends.

So, for teens undergoing cancer treatment, not having their peers around and not being able to follow their usual schedule can feel like a real loss.

Some teens may pull away socially. It can be a challenge to engage them in activities here at the hospital because this is not their normal social situation.

To encourage socialization, it’s most effective for me to spend time with the teen getting to know them and establishing trust and rapport. Then, when there are special events at the hospital they may be more likely to attend.

When a social relationship has already been established, then joining us for hospital bingo, a carnival or Friday movie night seems more comfortable. These events may not be what teens normally do at home, so we may have other incentives that are age appropriate for them. This can be a challenge to get them to activities that might not match their interests, but we have to try every day.

Teens may go to hospital activities and socials if they can bring a sibling or friend—or if they know that there is another teen coming along with us.

What I hear the most from teens going through treatment is, “I want to meet other teens on treatment just like me.”

Part of our work is to help foster and encourage these introductions and relationships when possible.

What Causes Teen Depression After Cancer Treatment?

teen depression

I think depression can come after cancer treatment in some young adults or older teens who just realized what they might have missed out on, like prom or sports or certain activities that were important to them.

They may have some really big struggles with finding their place because of the intensity of what happened. A teen may have spent their adolescence having faced very stressful, painful or challenging events that were not age appropriate. This affects them. It changes how they develop and who they become—this can be a positive or a negative.

The NCI explains that psychotherapy—either in a group or individual setting—is a main form of treatment for depression in pediatric cancer patients. Play therapy can help younger children cope with and understand the diagnosis and treatment processes as well.

I definitely encourage these teens to seek family support or behavioral support. It’s important to address a teen’s mental and physical health during and after treatment. Sometimes the support need arises well after treatment into young adulthood—every person is unique.

In part 2, learn about ways your medical team and families help teens cope with depression during and after cancer treatment.

Christy Hogan
My background is in child development, and I use this knowledge to connect and build trust with patients and families. I’ve been a child life specialist for more than 20 years.

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