How Could You Benefit from Joining a Prostate Cancer Support Group?

How Could You Benefit from Joining a Prostate Cancer Support Group? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What are some of the benefits provided by prostate cancer support groups? Prostate cancer survivor Jim Schraidt shares his perspective on how support groups can help patients with the emotional aspects of the disease as well as serve as a resource for information sharing.

Jim Schraidt is a prostate cancer survivor and Chairman of the Board of Directors for Us TOO International. Learn more about Jim Schraidt here.

See more from The Pro-Active Prostate Cancer Patient Toolkit

Related Resources

How Does Us TOO International Support Prostate Cancer Patients and Their Loved Ones?

How Does Us TOO International Support Prostate Cancer Patients and Their Loved Ones?

Newly Diagnosed with Prostate Cancer? Consider These Key Steps

How Can You Insist on Better Prostate Cancer Care?


Jim Schraidt:              

I think there are two primary ways that support groups are helpful. In the best case, a man will come to a support group as a newly diagnosed patient. And we’re actually working with a pilot project at Northwestern in Chicago where we have a support group that’s been in existence for a little over a year at this point.

But one of things that we’re working with the urology department there on is to get the urologists to refer newly diagnosed patients to the support group. And I think the primary benefits to a newly diagnosed patient are first, sort of removing some of the anxiety by talking to people who have been through the process and reminding them that in 90 percent of the cases they have some time to do some research, talk to people, and make a good decision that they can live with.

Because all of the treatments for prostate cancer, with the possible exception of active surveillance, come with side effects that a person undergoing this kind of treatment is going to have to live with for the rest of this life.

So, it’s a decision that’s very important. And to have the best possible outcome for a patient, they need to know what those side effects are. And they need to hear from men who have actually been through it.

I think the second important function of support groups is just support; after treatment, or if a patient is unfortunate enough to have recurrence or progression of his disease. And we’re not practitioners. We’re not medical practitioners. We don’t give medical advice. But there are lots of tricks of the trade, if you will, that men who have been coping with side effects can share with other men and help them get through it.

And part of that is just having a place to talk about what they’re going through, whether it’s things that they’re embarrassed to talk with their friends about, or things where they’re having difficulty communicating with their partner. I know from experience also that anger is a big thing that many patients experience, anger, and depression, post-treatment. And for me, one of the huge benefits of a support group was finding a place where that anger could go.

Because, I mean, even the best and most well-intentioned spouse, partner, or whatever, is going to grow tired of an angry patient partner.

And that can impact communication and can isolate a patient. So, it’s really important to have a place where some of that can go. And that’s part of the second piece, as far as I’m concerned.

The whole mental health piece really is under-emphasized, under-discussed by practitioners, but is very real for a lot of men undergoing this treatment. And the good news is that, that there is help available, and you can get through this. But many, many, many times you can’t do it on your own.

And you can’t do it solely with the help of your partner many times. So, this is one way you can talk to other people who have been through it, and they may have suggestions about therapy or talking to mental health practitioners.

Practicing Self-Care in the Time of Coronavirus – How to Mind Your Mental Health and Well-Being During Covid-19

As the coronavirus outbreak continues its relentless spread, the impact of the pandemic is being felt across the globe. We are facing a critical time of fear and uncertainty individually and in our communities.

COVID-19 will affect us all to varying degrees –  physically, emotionally, socially and psychologically.  

You may notice an increase in some of the following feelings:

  • feeling stressed and anxious
  • fearing that normal aches and pains might be the virus
  • excessively checking for symptoms, in yourself, or others
  • becoming irritable more easily
  • feeling insecure or unsettled
  • having trouble sleeping
  • feeling helpless or a lack of control
  • having irrational thoughts

Both The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)[1] and  The World Health Organisation (WHO)[2] have responded to the psycho-social impact of coronavirus by releasing  guidelines for those whose mental health is being negatively impacted.

In addition to these guidelines, many patient leaders are providing information and support to their communities through their social media channels.  To quote board certified coach, Nancy Seibel (@NancyLSeibel)  “those of us who have had cancer and other serious health challenges know something about how to self-calm and cope with uncertainty.  We know a lot about life being upended; uncertainty; living with but not in fear. It’s a hard-won gift, one that we can share with others.”  

While this is naturally a worrying time, there are many things we can do to mind our mental health and boost our immunity and well-being at this time. Being proactive about how you handle this crisis can help to keep both your mind and body stronger. I hope you will find the following tips helpful and reassuring as you navigate your way through this time of global crisis. 

10 Ways To Take Care Of Your Mental Health And Wellbeing During Covid-19

1. Recognize  What You Can Control

While many of the things that surround this crisis are outside of your control, you can still focus on those things that are within your control. Hand washing,  staying at home,  limiting unnecessary travel and contact with others are steps we can all take to decrease our personal risk and protect others.   If you’re a cancer patient, currently undergoing treatment, you are in a high-risk group because cancer treatment compromises your immune system[3]. Follow the advice for High Risk Patients outlined on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website.[4] 

That said, the reality of life as a cancer patient has probably prepared you for this moment better than most.  As breast cancer survivor, Diane Mapes, wrote in a recent Fred Hutch [5] article, “For the immunocompromised and those with disease, social distancing and uncertainty are a way of life.”

2. Focus On  The Facts

In a world of 24/7 rolling news and social media updates, it’s easy to get drawn into speculation and hype.   “It’s ok to be scared,” says breast cancer survivor, Karen Murray (@MurrayKaren),  “but don’t let fear take hold.” Rumors, myths and falsehoods can take on a life of their own if we let them, but as patient advocate, Nancy Stordahl[6] reminds us, “calmness is contagious too.”   

Keeping a realistic perspective of the situation based on facts is important at this time. Avoid media outlets that build hype or dwell on things that can’t be controlled. Stick to respected sources of information on the coronavirus and how to handle it. 

If you’re unsure  about something you’ve  read or heard, check it on the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) at the Poynter Institute[7].   If you’re concerned about whether you may have COVID-19,  the Cleveland Clinic[8] has a free screening tool to find out your risk level, based on your symptoms and travel. Additionally,  Intermountain’s COVID-19 Symptom Checker[9] is an easy to use, digital tool to help people get important information about COVID-19, assess their risk, and navigate to the most appropriate care setting.  “These are scary times, for sure,” points out Nancy, “but knowledge is power. Learn what you need to in order to keep you and your loved ones safe.” 

3. Limit Your Exposure To The News

The constant stream of social media updates and news reports about coronavirus could cause you to feel extremely stressed. If the constant drip feed of live news and social media is making you  anxious,  limit your exposure to news outlets.  I’m not suggesting you totally  ignore important news  updates – it’s essential to keep yourself informed. But you can reduce your anxiety by reducing the amount of time you expose yourself to the news.  Limit your media consumption to a certain amount of time each day. According to WHO, minimizing the amount of news you watch can be beneficial in helping people keep calm and positive.  The organization also suggests we “find opportunities to amplify positive and hopeful stories and positive images of local people who have experienced Covid-19.”

4. Practice Good Self-Care 

It’s important to pay attention to your self-care needs, especially during times of stress. Eating a healthy, balanced diet, avoiding excessive alcohol and stimulants, getting plenty of sleep, practising relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises and meditation, and  taking daily exercise are key ways to stay physically and psychologically  healthy during stressful times.  Oncoplastic breast cancer and reconstructive surgeon,  Dr Tasha Gandamihardja (@DrTashaG) also suggests you “do little things that give you joy e.g. watch  a favorite program or read a favorite book.” 

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself at this time, advises metastatic breast cancer patient, Julia Barnickle (@JuliaBarnickle). “On days when I don’t have the energy to do much, I tell myself ‘just do one thing.’ If I feel like doing more, that’s great, but I never feel guilty about only being able to do one thing. So I choose the one thing that feels most important, whatever it is,” she says.

5. Keep Active

Build regular exercise into your day. There’s an abundance of scientific evidence showing how important fitness is for mental health: so during this very stressful time, it’s even more important.  The closure of gyms at this time doesn’t of course mean you can’t keep fit. Going for a walk or hike (if you  aren’t self-quarantined) watching a workout video online, practicing yoga or walking up and down stairs in your home are all ways to keep active and fit.   Cancer researcher, Emily Drake  (@EK_Drake), has seized on this time as an opportunity to learn to run. “I’ve never been a runner,” she explains, “ but with gyms and yoga studios closed – online just doesn’t work for me –  I need to get out.”

6. Eat To Beat Stress

Registered dietitian,  Cathy Leman[10] recommends you mix and match from these 29 foods each day to boost your body’s stress busting powers.

  • Vitamin C fruits and veggies
  • Green and red peppers, potatoes, oranges, grapefruit, strawberries, tomatoes, kiwi, cauliflower, cabbage, onions
  • Vitamin E foods
  • Dry roasted sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach, safflower oil, wheat germ, green leafy vegetables
  • Polyphenolic foods
  • Chocolate, tea, coffee
  • Complex carbohydrate foods
  • Barley, rye, oats, whole wheat
  • Omega 3 foods
  • Walnuts, ground flax seeds, fatty fish, chia seeds, canola oil

7.  Stick To A Daily Routine

Your daily routine may be affected by the coronavirus outbreak in different ways. But according to WHO, people should try to stick to their daily routines as much as possible.  “Ensure that you create a realistic and helpful daily routine and structure to your day, and stick to it, “ recommends psychotherapist, Karin Sieger.[11] “Have regular times for getting up and going to bed as well as meal times.”

For those of us who are working from home maintaining a routine can be challenging.  The temptation to sit in pajamas all day is real. Try to  stick to a working routine as much as possible – this includes structuring  your day with regular breaks (try working in 45-60 minute chunks of focused work followed by a short break),  minimizing distractions,  stopping for lunch, getting some fresh air, avoiding staying in the same position for prolonged periods  of time and keeping hydrated.  

8. Stay Connected

While “social distancing,” is hypothesized to flatten the curve of the contagion,[12] it’s not without costs. Research shows that social support is vital for our mental and physical health. According to WHO, individuals in isolation are one group that may feel the impact on their mental health the most.  To combat the loneliness of self-isolation, the organization advises people  to “stay connected and maintain your social networks”. 

Maintaining strong connections will help you to feel supported, but since face-to-face in-person support is limited we need to find other ways to connect and receive support. Patient advocate,  Terri Coutee (@6state)  recommends  utilizing online platforms. “Call/text family members often and talk about fun times together,” she suggests.  Social media and social messaging apps are  a boon at this time. Patient advocate, Siobhan Feeney (@BreastDense) says she is “so grateful for my social media friends in many countries as we share the burden of this pandemic.”  In addition,  individuals who are self-isolating can also use QuarantineChat,[13] a new app that aims to connect people who are quarantined and may not have close family or friends to call. [14]

9.  Find Creative Distractions

Doing something creative can help improve your mood when you feel anxious or low. Creative activities can also increase your confidence and make you feel happier. This is because creative hobbies often completely absorb your attention, helping you to temporarily forget negative thoughts.  Carolyn Thomas (@heartsisters) shares this lovely idea for creating together with friends: “my paper-crafting friends and I are having our first ever virtual card-making workshop together via the miracle of video chat…. We each have a number of springtime birthdays coming up among our families and friends, so we’ll be creating springtime-theme birthday cards today.”

Looking for some more creative ideas? From baking to blogging, journaling to jigsaws, Sara Liyanage, author of Ticking Off Breast Cancer, has compiled a bumper list of distractions[15] for you to try.  Also check out PEN’s own Activity Guide here.   Experiment until you find something that suits you.

10. Practice Kindness and Self-Compassion

Nancy Seibel recommends shifting your focus to giving and receiving kindness.  “You’ll be worried, anxious or fearful at times. That’s a natural response to what’s happening, “ she says. “Accept those feelings compassionately. See if there’s anything to learn from them. Then shift your attention. Focus on what you’re grateful for. Walk. Ride your bike. Write. Dance.” She recommends starting with your own self-care, before expanding it out to others. “Calm and center yourself with meditation, deep breathing, knitting – whatever soothes you. Then support others. Spread a contagion of joy, love and kindness! That’s what will get us through this turbulent time.”

This Too Shall Pass

One of the things that is helping me right now is to tell myself that this reality is not forever. Patient advocate, Liza Bernstein[16] reminds us that while  “for now, #COVID19 feels like the entire world’s permanent reality… [but] within that, there are moments, nuances, and joy. There is hope, a delicious piece of chocolate, or a beautiful flower, or a hilarious meme, of if you’re lucky, a dog to play with, a loved one to hug (if you’re in the same home and healthy!)… or whatever floats your boat.”

The spread of coronavirus is a new and challenging event. Most people’s lives will change in some way over a period of days, weeks or months. But in time, it will pass. My wish for you today, especially if you are feeling anxious, alone, or fearful, is that you can find something to hold onto in this moment. To quote psychologist and breast cancer and SCAD survivor, Elizabeth McKenzie[17], “In this moment, as I write this, I have all that I need. I have my breath. I have my mind. I have my family. I have friends. I have shelter. I have clean water and good food. I have the nearby woods in which to walk. Not all moments are like this but right now it is.”

Additional Resources

At Home Self-Care Tips for Parents During a Pandemic


[1] CDC. Coronavirus Disease 2019

[2] WHO. Mental Health and Psychosocial Considerations During

COVID-19 Outbreak  In January 2020, The WHO declared the outbreak of a new coronavirus disease to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

[3] Fred Hutch. Coronavirus: what cancer patients need to know

[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Are You at Higher Risk for Severe Illness?

[5] Fred Hutch. Lessons from cancer patients in the time of coronavirus

[6] Nancy’s Point. What Can Cancer Patients (or anyone) Do to Protect Themselves & Others During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

[7] The #CoronaVirusFacts / #DatosCoronaVirus Alliance unites more than 100 fact-checkers around the world in publishing, sharing and translating facts surrounding the novel coronavirus

[8] Cleveland Clinic. Find Out Your COVID-19 Risk

[9] Intermountain Healthcare. COVID-19 Symptom Checker.

[10]Dam.Mad. About  Breast Cancer. Eat These 29 Foods to Help You Manage Stress

[11] Karin Sieger. Coping With Difficult Times.

[12] Live Science. Coronavirus: What is ‘flattening the curve,’ and will it work?


[14] Quarantine is the separation and restriction of movement of people who have potentially been exposed to a contagious disease to ascertain if they become unwell, so reducing the risk of them infecting others. This differs from isolation, which is the separation of people who have been diagnosed with a contagious disease from people who are not sick; however, the two terms are often used interchangeably, especially in communication with the public. The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence

[15] Ticking Off Breast Cancer. Ways To Distract Yourself During Self-Isolation.

[16] It’s The Bunk. It’s #Covid19 – Start Where You Are

[17] My Eyes Are Up Here. All I Need

Holiday Hacks: Tips for Coping with Chronic Illness During the Holidays #patientchat Highlights

Last week, we hosted an #patientchat on Holiday Hacks: Tips for Coping with Chronic Illness During the Holidays. The #patientchat community came together for an engaging discussion and shared what was their mind.

Top Tweets

Celebrate What You Can Do

But How Are You Really Doing?

Don’t Assume Anything

Full Chat

Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) w/@askdrfitz and @HealthSparq #patientchat Highlights

Last week, we hosted an #patientchat on the social determinants of health (SDOH) with HealthSparq (@HealthSparq) and Dr. Lisa Fitzpatrick (@askdrfitz). The #patientchat community came together for an engaging discussion and shared what was their mind.

Top Tweets

Social Determinants of Health Are A Systemic Issue

There Are Many Social Determinants of Health

Full Chat

Patient Experience: Let’s Talk Patient Burnout #patientchat Highlights

Last week, we hosted an #patientchat on the patient experience and patient burnout. The #patientchat community came together for an engaging discussion and shared what was their mind.

Top Tweets

Burnout Is Real and Normal

Many Factors Can Lead to Burnout

Full Chat

Tackling Medicine’s ‘Taboo’ Subjects

Many people feel reticent to speak about their personal medical problems and for 3% of Americans, the problem is so extreme that they feel they cannot speak to a doctor at all. While most concerns lead to nothing serious, there will be occasions where an inability to speak up can lead to further problems. Empowering people to feel confident is important, and there are stages to breaking down the barriers to this.

Improving Awareness

One important step to creating a safer environment for speaking freely is through improving awareness over conditions. Simply put, there are almost no conditions that significant numbers of people won’t have experienced and that doctors won’t see as run of the mill. Diseases concerning sensitive parts of the body and, similarly, venereal disease, are a good example of this, with literally millions being diagnosed every year according to the CDC.Despite this, studies have shown that many men and women are reluctant to discuss their symptoms with doctors.Teaching awareness of these sorts of facts, and outlining how nobody is going to judge, is an important base layer.

Getting Information Out There

Part of the reasons some people will refuse to approach a doctor is through fear of diagnosis, or of invasive diagnostic processes. A great way to combat this is through having as much medical information available online as possible. Services like Mayo Clinic and Healthline have done a lot to aid this in recent years, but more work can be done, especially with more obscure conditions.


Most crucial is the process of de-stigmatizing all illness. Regardless of the cause, condition or outcome, illness remains the same and should be treated with sensitivity. The effect of stigma on illness is clearly felt. Anonymous polls of men by the NCHS found that 10% of men had experienced feelings of anxiety or depression, but less than half had sought treatment. This fear of stigma has led to men being 3.5x more at risk of suicide than women. De-stigmatizing is key, both for mental health and for conditions across the board.

Illness should never be something to be ashamed or scared of broaching the subject of. Instead, it should be something that people feel confident and free to talk about with a doctor, with no worry of abuse or shame. Through awareness, dispersing information and tackling stigma, society as a whole can create an environment in which people of all ages are happy to pursue their medical issues.


Open Mic #patientchat Highlights

Last week, we hosted an Open Mic Empowered #patientchat. The #patientchat community came together for an engaging discussion and shared what was their mind.

Top Tweets

“How do you keep focused on yourself and the things you have rather than what you don’t?”

Mental Health’s Stigma

Mental Health Should Be Apart of Care Coordination

Full Chat

10 Tips for Mental Health Spring Cleaning

Every spring, we give our homes a deep cleaning to get it ready for the coming year. Do you do the same to your mind? Decluttering your brain is just as important as organizing your home. Here are 10 tips for mental health spring cleaning.

1. Start Journaling

Journaling might be a hobby that has fallen a bit out of vogue, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less effective. Keep a journal of your thoughts, worries, fears, and upsets. This helps release them from your mind.

2. Drop a Bad Habit

Pick an area in your life that has an impact on your mental health. For many of us, this might be diet or exercise. Make an effort to drop the habit and replace it with a healthier option. Instead of lazy Sundays, for example, maybe switch to lazy Sunday afternoons after a quick jog.

3. Let Go of Past Drama

Drama, and the negative feelings it induces, has a way of sticking with us. Let past drama go, even if it’s tempting to hang onto it. Your mind will be a more positive space and will be better able to handle the coming year thanks to your effort, and you’ll feel less stress and anxiety as a result.

4. Tackle Projects You’ve Been Putting Off

We all have a mental list of projects we really need to tackle. Start your “mental health spring cleaning” by writing down all of the things that you’ve been putting off, like home repairs or going to the skin doctor, and making the necessary appointments to get everything in hand.

5. Build Positive Relationships

We all have people in our lives that we love, but with whom we don’t have the healthiest or most enjoyable relationships. Instead of spending time prioritizing those people, consider dedicating your time to positive friendships instead.

6. Begin Healing Past Trauma

Life doesn’t leave anyone unscathed, and you might have some experiences in your past that have negatively affected you. If you haven’t already, now is the time to start taking steps towards overcoming them. Don’t be afraid to reach out to professionals for advice and guidance.

7. Make Gratitude a Priority

One great way to promote a healthy mind is to take some time to consider everything for which you are grateful. You can do this in a number of ways. If you’d like to make a daily list, for example, then set aside some time to the activity every day. You can also take a few moments every day and mentally check off all of your blessings.

8. Kick Negative Thoughts to the Curb

Chances are good you have enough on your mind without negative thoughts bouncing around. Consciously push those thoughts out and refocus on something positive instead.

9. Pick Up a New Hobby

Consider starting a new hobby to help spend your time constructively. A mind occupied with an interesting activity is a happy one.

10. Change Your Perspective

Accept that you’re not perfect and neither is the world around you. Instead of focusing on issues that make you made, look to the moments of progress and joy instead.

Are you ready to get started on your mental health spring cleaning? Take a look at some of our tips above and get started!

Mental Health Challenges for Aging Americans

Editor’s Note: This blog was originally published for the Georgetown University Online FNP Program and can be viewed here.

While there’s many benefits to enjoy during your golden years, including time spent with loved ones after retirement, the American Psychological Association  (APA) says that aging “also comes with unique challenges: the loss of close friends and family members; complex and debilitating medical issues, such as sight and hearing loss; and increased financial pressure.” Identifying these challenges is becoming more important: Although recent research published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that people tend to be happier as they age, it is estimated that 20 percent of the 65 and older population meets the criteria for some type of mental health disorder.“While seniors are less likely to be depressed than younger people,” Suzanne Allard Levingston writes in an article for The Washington Post, “the size of the baby boom population will demand new strategies to care for them.The most common mental health disorders for aging Americans are depression and anxiety, which are also leading risk factors for suicide. Nursing@Georgetown created the following infographic to help illustrate some of the common signs and risk factors of depression among aging Americans.

View the text-only version


Symptoms of depression include persistent sadness, withdrawal from previously enjoyed activities, difficulty sleeping, physical discomfort, self-medication via substance misuse, and feeling lethargic, according to the CDC. They go on to note that depression is not considered a normal part of growing older, and while it is normal to experience sadness, grief, loss, and mood swings, depression that impacts a person’s ability to function requires treatment and support.

Anxiety often goes hand in hand with depression, according to a publication from the CDC and the National Association of Chronic Disease Directors (NACDD . The report goes on to highlight how almost half of older adults who are diagnosed with depression also meet the criteria for anxiety. The effects of anxiety include persistent worry along with physical symptoms that can include muscle tightness, restlessness, difficulty sleeping, stomach problems, and nausea all lasting for an extended period of time.

The APA outlines how serious the physical consequences of depression and anxiety can be: “The feelings of hopelessness and isolation that often spur thoughts of suicide are more prevalent among older adults, especially those with disabilities or confined to nursing homes.”

The rate of suicid  among both men and women ages 65 to 74 has steadily increased over the past two decades. In 2014, the highest suicide rate in the country was among people 85 years or older.

The Role of Primary Care

There are several reasons why treating depression in the elderly poses a unique challenge. Common among patient’ concerns are: “inadequate insurance coverage, stigma around mental health… denial…and lack of transportation,” according to the APA . Systemic reasons include things like a shortage of trained geriatric mental health providers and miscommunication between health care providers.

In addition, when older adults visit their primary care providers, they tend to focus on physical symptoms rather than talk about how they’re feeling or what they’re experiencing mentally and emotionally, according to a fact sheet from the Illinois Department of Public Health. This can lead to mental health issues that go unrecognized, untreated, or undertreated. For example, the AARP External points out that depression is sometimes misdiagnosed as dementia.

The good news is that there are effective treatments for depression, and adults with depression can improve from treatment if they receive it. Primary care providers such as Family Nurse Practitioners play an important role by identifying at-risk older adults and taking necessary follow-up actions by implementing routine mental health screenings and treating symptoms that negatively impact quality of life.

Please note that this blog post is for informational purposes only. Individuals should consult their health care professionals before following any of the information provided. Nursing@Georgetown does not endorse any organizations or websites contained in this blog post.

A Blueprint When Feeling Blue: How A Mental Health Diagnosis Can Be Empowering

Editor’s Note: This blog was written by Ashley Santangelo and originally appeared here on Jen’s Reviews.

When First Impressions are the Worst Impressions

The first time you ever heard the term “mental illness”, what did you think of? I can tell you what I thought of.

I was in the beginning of high school the first time I recall hearing this term. At the time, associated it with people who were unstable. I thought of people who were violent or adults who had tantrums or isolated old women who never left the house. I thought of mental illness as something that was permanent, something that individuals “had” and couldn’t recover from. Even though de-institutionalization was prevalent by that point, I still thought of people who have long stays at psychiatric wards and pictured them mumbling to themselves in a straight jacket.

Ironically, I was going through my own struggles with mental illness at the time. I didn’t call it mental illness then. I would go back and forth between feeling anxious and depressed, but I thought it was teen angst and aloofness. But was I mentally ill? My 16-year-old self would say “No way. I’m not crazy.” (Whatever “crazy” means…)

My teenage image of what an adult living with a mental illness might look like.

As I learned more about mental illness, my view of it changed substantially. By the time I was halfway through college, I realized that my anxiety and mood disorder had a significant impact on my functioning and that mental health existed on a much wider spectrum than I thought. My lived experience with mental illness was one of several factors that influenced me to study human behavior. But what about people who do not have the desire to learn about this topic? Are their impressions as biased, extreme, and inaccurate as the examples I mentioned above?

My teenage reactions to the term “mental illness” were similar to the negative stereotypes that exist in the public sphere. One of the most egregious stereotypes of people who live with mental illness is that they are more likely to be violent than the general population. The truth is that people who have a mental health diagnosis are about 10 times more likely to be the victim of a crime than the perpetrator.

A mannequin represents a victim of crime on the street. Despite certain stereotypes, individuals with a mental illness are 10 times more likely to be the victim of a crime than the perpetrator.

Perhaps the stereotypical images discussed above are the first to come to people’s minds because they are the most extreme interpretations of what mental illness might look like. The hard truth is that the majority of mental illnesses are subtle. Somebody could be diagnosed with conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression or anxiety and the rest of us would have no idea. In fact, over 40 million adults in the United States have a mental health condition. That is equal to nearly 1 in 5 people. And contrary to my 14-year-old imagination, the majority of adults with a mental illness are not violent, institutionalized, or home bound.

Mental illness affects children, adolescents, and adults from all walks of life, but this is not often talked about due to stigma. Although efforts to reduce stigma have made recent progress, it is not uncommon for the people who I have worked with to experience guilt and shame as reactions to a mental health diagnosis. I have heard story after story about their worries and projections. Would a mental health diagnosis alter their life in a frightening way? Would they have to take medication forever? Would they be able to work at a level that would allow them to meet their goals?

A man expressing worry and sadness, reactions that many people may have when diagnosed with a mental illness.

When new symptoms arise, it is reasonable to be concerned about how they may impact our quality of life. Yet, forecasting defeat can make symptoms of almost any mental health condition even worse. In fact, if is possible to utilize the information gathered about your diagnosis to make informed decisions about how to take care of yourself moving forward.

Something Doesn’t Feel Right…..

I think it is safe to say that we can all relate to having a physical illness or ailment. We have had upset stomachs, scratchy throats, or aches or pains that seemingly came from nowhere. All of us can relate to the feelings of helplessness and annoyance that arise when we want the condition to go away, but we have no control over when it will because we are unsure of what caused it and how to fix it. Some of us may have even been informed that there is no way to “fix” the ailment because we have something chronic, but that we can learn to live with it by managing the symptoms.

Now imagine that you are having symptoms, but they are emotional instead of physical. Picture struggling with a relentless sense of hopelessness, prolonged sadness, sudden episodes of panic, recurring flashbacks to a traumatic incident, or intense fear that others might be out to harm you. Like having an upset stomach or a mysterious pain, there could be a variety of reasons why you are having these symptoms and they are not always clear. And when we see a doctor for the weird stomach ache or sore throat that won’t go away, what does the doctor do? Ask questions: How long have the symptoms been occurring? Do they happen at specific times of the day? Do they happen after you eat? Then they will probably examine your throat or press on your stomach to examine your body further.

An experience that many of us are familiar with at the doctor’s office.

A similar process occurs when you seek consultation about a mental health condition. You tell a therapist, social worker, or psychiatrist the symptoms and life events that you have been experiencing, and they will ask a series of questions to help find the nature of your condition. The questions that these professionals ask are typically called bio-psychosocial assessments and tend to be quite comprehensive. Similar to when you visit a medical doctor, the treatment plan may not be clear after one session (in fact, in many cases it is not!) but it can offer a roadmap about what to do nest.

I’d like to be clear that not everybody who sees one of these professionals necessarily has a mental health condition that can be treated using the same biological model that applies to medical diagnoses. In many circumstances, the problem that brings someone to a therapist or social worker requires a treatment plan that has a higher emphasis on fixing social or environmental problems. Yet, these interventions are also based on best practices from previous research and can improve mental health outcomes. British author Johan Hari wrote  excellent book named “Lost Connections” which gives several examples of what these interventions look like and how they can improve symptoms that were originally presented in a more clinical setting.

I have noticed that people have different reactions to mental health diagnoses than they do to medical ones. For example, when I was diagnosed with Panic Disorder it felt different from when I was diagnosed with Allergic Rhinitis. It was difficult for me not to view my diagnosis of Panic Disorder as some kind of moral shortcoming. Throughout the years, I have learned that viewing my diagnosis as a personality flaw would make it harder for me to come to peace with it and have the willingness to explore treatment options.

Creepy blurred photo of a person’s face and a furry hood. Panic attacks tend to escalate very quickly and sometimes the experience can feel very “blurry” as interpreted in this photo.

It is not useful, and not at all accurate, to attach guilt and to such conditions. I did not engage in any actions that resulted in me developing Panic Disorder. A combination of genetic predispositions in my DNA and social experiences I had early in life have influenced my brain to develop in such a way that I sometimes respond to situations with a disproportionate amount of fear and terror – often over a very short period of time. This is not a moral shortcoming, it is a combination science and learned behavior.  I can learn to manage it though and work with therapists or peer groups to take steps to “unlearn” the behavior.

Now, let’s go back to that doctor’s visit we discussed earlier. Imagine how we might feel at the end of each of these visits. I can attest that after I receive a medical diagnosis, I am often relieved. Most of the time, I am informed of what the problem is, what medication to take, and what lifestyle choices I can make to relieve the symptoms of the condition. Even though the steps to treat it might be a nuisance, at least I leave knowing what to do and feeling a bit more empowered.

When treating mental illness, it is often difficult to make a diagnosis after one visit. Providers have to identify a diagnosis for insurance billing purposes, but after just one visit with a client that diagnosis is preliminary. It is inaccurate to stay that you will leave your first appointment with an explanation of how to vastly improve our symptoms, but the point that I am trying to make is that once an explanation is provided it can arm you with additional knowledge about how to manage your situation and put you in a position where you can make a choice.

Any time I needed to seek help for my mental health symptoms, I tried to view it as a learning opportunity. I would ask about the known causes, any research that has been done on it and what has been successful for others who have been living with it. I would also reflect on how the information that I obtained applied to my own situation and determined (sometimes with a provider and sometimes on my own) what the best next steps would be in my action plan.

For me, it was empowering and validating to be reminded that I was not alone. Like I said earlier, 40 million adults in the United States have a mental health condition. And there are forums on the internet, and sometimes in-person support groups, for many different mental health conditions where you can connect with other who are finding solutions. The more you know about the root of your distress, the more power you will have to manage the symptoms and make your own choice about the best next step. Mental health professionals can help with the evidence based guidance – but we are not experts on you – you are!

Challenges with This Process: And How to Stay Empowered Through Them

Mental health treatment isn’t always linear. If you need a medication to improve your mental health, you may need to try a few different drugs or different dosages before you find the right prescription that works for you. If you need to seek a therapist or support group, you may need to try different groups or providers before you find the right match. And you may go through mental health treatment, get better, and find that a month or a year or five years down the line, you need treatment again. There may not be a quick fix.

Sometimes treatment can feel like a bit of a puzzle. It can take several tries of piecing different approaches together before you feel whole again.

It is true that sometimes the dynamic between a therapist or psychiatrist and a help seeker can feel disempowering to the client. When working with clients, I have always tried the best I can to use the strengths perspective which focuses on a person’s assets and resilience, rather than their pathologies. It is important for practitioners to know that our communication style and view of the client as a non-expert of their own life can contribute to their feelings of disempowerment. Speaking from the experience of being on the consumer end of mental health treatment, I have always felt much more . empowered when I saw providers who used the strengths perspective.

Whenever I have felt disempowered, it has helped me to focus on what was immediately in front of me. When I have gone through episodes of worry and doomsday forecasts in my mind about things “never getting better,” I was able to get through it by putting thoughts of the future aside and engaging in a useful task that would give me an immediate sense of gratification. Enter….cleaning! It sounds a little silly, doesn’t it? Never in a million years did my feminist inspired brain think that domestic tasks would help me feel empowered. But in certain moments, they really did. I even tried some DIY cleaning ingredients which made it fun for me. It was kind of like a creative project. I would make something, use it to change the environment and feel a sense of accomplishment afterwards. Of course, recovery and wellness as a whole are not that simplistic. But there have been several times where a night of giving some TLC to my apartment helped ground me and remind me that my mind did not always have to be in the future and that I could enjoy simple tasks in front of me in the meantime.

Let’s Talk More About Empowerment

OK, so you were informed of your different treatment options and have made a decision about what you would like to do. How can the sense of empowerment you felt when you made that choice stick with you as you go through the process of recovery?

A Canadian study that was facilitated in 2001 explored factors in the lives of adults with a mental illness that influenced the degree of empowerment felt in their lives. Every participant was in some kind of mental health treatment (either therapy, medication management, a peer support group, or a combination of more than one treatment method). The study revealed that the two factors below had a significant influence on empowerment:

  1. Personal motivation: When consumers of mental health services were able to take more initiative in making choices, it resulted in improved confidence, skill development, and greater sense of control over their lives.
  2. Supportive Relationships: Consumers of mental health services reported feeling more empowered when their personal and professional relationships were supportive and fair. This resulted in increased participation and involvement in the community, particularly if they were able to connect with a community of peers who they saw on a regular basis.

I have actually witnessed the peer support models become increasingly common in the past decade and know of individuals who have discovered a sense of purpose once they become involved in peer support. These kinds of groups and relationships have the potential to offer mental health consumers a sense of connection that may be difficult to find elsewhere.

Giving and receiving mutual support to other with a mental illness can provide empowerment and a sense of purpose.

Another way that having a mental health diagnosis can result in empowerment is through resilience. Those of us who have lived with a mental illness have often been placed in positions where we have had to struggle to find new or different ways to cope with life’s stressors. It has been my experience that surviving through the moments where the mental illness is at its worst forces us to learn skills to help us persevere. Even though I felt hopeless and vulnerable in the midst of my worst mental health crises, I always came out of each of them feeling a little stronger and a bit more confident in my capacity to grow through adversity. And some coping skills I have learned as a result of struggling with anxiety have resulted in positive changes in my life that I otherwise may never have experienced.

For example, I had no interest whatsoever in meditation before my anxiety hit its peak in my early twenties. I tried meditation, with some skepticism, after some peers and providers had recommended it to me. Meditation ended up benefiting me so much that I continued to practice for long after my symptoms improved. As a result of practicing meditation, I have become more patient, more present, and more appreciative. Had struggling with mental illness not given me the motivation to try new coping skills, I may have never discovered this practice that has enriched my life.

I have heard others share similar feedback about exercise. Several of my peers specifically mentioned running as an activity that helped them with things such as “clearing their head” or “setting their perspective for the day. One challenge with exercise though, is that it can be hard to start particularly when you are having symptoms of depression. These symptoms can suck away your energy level and motivation.

When discussing the benefits of early morning exercise, Jen mentions a visualization activity  that can help counteract some of the self-deprecating thoughts and beliefs that come with depression. Our thoughts can sometimes trap us into believing that certain things are not options. I have certainly gone through this before. It sounded a little bit like this “There is no way I can get up at 6 to hit the treadmill tomorrow. I’m not going to have the energy.” And then I literally pictured myself hitting the snooze button until 7:15.

Changing our narrative, and the way we visually see the narrative playing out, can be useful. Psychologists have found that the self-fulfilling prophecies that occur during depression can create a cycle that is difficult to get out of. Visualizing yourself overcoming challenges has the potential to break this cycle.

Meditation reduces stress, improves concentration and increases self-awareness, something that is particularly useful when managing a mental illness.

The Takeaway

We are all familiar with the stereotypes of mental illness. Advocates, consumers, and providers across North America have been fighting to challenge these stereotypes and provide correct information about mental health. Stigma against mental illness can often deter people from seeking treatment and may cause them to view mental illness as a personal weakness rather than a treatable condition. This perspective can be reframed by viewing a mental health diagnosis as a framework for establishing a treatment plan. Some mental health consumers may be able to shift this perspective on their own, but providers and the public need to also take accountability. Stigma is created by public opinion. If the public could have more empowering and empathetic views toward people who have a mental illness, it could lead to a paradigm shift that could help more people see diagnosis as a blueprint rather than a bombshell.

Cancer Goes Beyond Your Cells and Into Yourself

Your dreams of starting a family, of buying a house, of having grandchildren or of retirement in Florida may all come to a halt when your doctor says, “I’m sorry, but the test results revealed that you have cancer.”

In that brief moment, the future that you’ve dreamed up for yourself suddenly seems less attainable. Even though medical advancements have greatly improved chances of remission and the possibility of a long, healthy life, that doesn’t mean that a cancer diagnosis won’t drastically change your life. The first side effects of a cancer diagnosis that people may think about are the physical ones like hair loss, nausea and fatigue. However, some of the biggest challenges a cancer patient may experience are mental challenges.

While no one is going to respond the same way to difficult news like a cancer diagnosis, a number of cancer patients may experience several common mental health disorders. According to The National Cancer Institute, approximately 25 percent of cancer survivors experience symptoms of depression and about 45 percent experience anxiety. Some patients may even exhibit symptoms that meet the criteria of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The most concerning statistic is that cancer survivors are twice as likely to commit suicide than the general population.

The physical pain, treatments and stressors involved with a diagnosis is enough to cause a mental health disorder to develop on its own, but a person still has to deal with everyday stresses relative to relationships, finances and family issues. Some tips to boost your mental well-being during such a trying time can include:

  • Eat a well-balanced diet. Make sure you are eating enough calories because that’s will maintain your energy level. Lean proteins and colorful fruits and vegetables are nutritious choices that can help boost your strength and attitude.
  • Go outside. Going outdoors and getting fresh air can help clear your mind of negative thoughts associated with your illness.
  • Make memories. You shouldn’t let your cancer diagnosis keep you from living your life and enjoying your relationships.
  • Talk about it. Talking about your feelings can often make you feel better, it can be especially beneficial to talk to other cancer patients so you have someone to relate to and possibly offer a new perspective.
  • Grieve losses. As your illness and treatment progresses, you may face a number of obstacles like losing your independence or your ability to maintain your routine and complete simple tasks like grocery shopping or doing laundry. You should take time to grieve these personal losses before you try to move on.
  • Take your medications and supplements as directed. With your illness you may often experience chronic pain, it’s important to take your pain medication as directed so you don’t increase the risk of developing a substance use disorder. You should also discuss any changes you want to make regarding medications or supplements with your care team.
  • Get financial counseling. By discussing your extra expenses with an experienced financial counselor you can alleviate some of your anxiety.
  • Maintain an active social life. It’s important to have a strong support network because it helps you get through treatment physically and mentally.

Cancer can take a toll on your body but it can also be hard on your mind as well. If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health or substance use disorder, recovery is possible. Call and speak with a representative at The Recovery Village to find out more about treatment options. The call is free, confidential, and there is no obligation to enroll.

Mental Health & Cancer

Anxiety, fear and depression are commonly associated with life-changing events – especially cancer. People with cancer may find the physical, emotional and social side effects of the disease to be stressful. This stress may result from changes in body image, changes in family or work roles and physical symptoms due to treatment. Family members and caregivers often feel these same stressors, as they fear the loss of a loved one. They may feel angry because someone they love has cancer, frustrated that they “can’t do enough,” or stressed because they have to take on more at home. So many of these feelings are completely normal, but what is typical and when may outside help be needed?

According to The American Cancer Society, signs that the patient or a loved one may need help are the following:

  • Suicidal thoughts (or thoughts of hurting himself or herself)
  • Unable to eat or sleep
  • Lacks interest in usual activities for many days
  • Is unable to find pleasure in things they’ve enjoyed in the past
  • Has emotions that interfere with daily activities and last more than a few days
  • Is confused
  • Has trouble breathing
  • Is sweating more than usual
  • Is very restless
  • Has new or unusual symptoms that cause concern

If you or a loved one have experienced one or more of the above symptoms, there are many options for help.

Speak with your cancer team

If you find any of the above symptoms to be true, one of the first steps may be talking with your cancer team. Your team should be able to answer any questions, talk about your concerns, and, if needed, refer you to a mental health professional. Anxiety occasionally stems from the fear of uncertainty from treatment or medication side effects, so knowing what to expect may be the first step in coping.

Seek support

Once you have spoken with your cancer team and support system to determine a treatment plan, put it into action! Any of the below activities may supplement the treatment prescribed by your doctor in making both you and your loved ones feel less alone and anxious during this difficult time:

Get moving

Exercise has been proven to improve individuals’ quality of life and physical functionality. Though rest and relaxation are crucial to maintaining a healthy mind and body, regular exercise may help maintain and even improve your health. Exercise may help during treatment by improving balance and physical abilities, lowering the risk of osteoporosis and heart disease, and lessen nausea. Even more importantly than physical health, exercise may improve patients’ self-esteem, mental health and quality of life.

Every individuals’ physical needs and potential are different, so it is important to speak with your doctor about what exercises are best for you. Because the stage and treatment plan for cancer patients differ, so may each patients’ stamina and strength. Staying as active and fit as possible is essential to maintaining physical well-being during treatment, so tailoring an exercise program that fits your ability and preference is essential.



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