Need For Mental Health Screening in Pediatric Cancer Population

Mental Health in Pediatrics 

Depression and anxiety amongst cancer patients are leading contributors to the debilitating mental distress that can accompany a cancer diagnosis. The immense impacts on one’s mental wellbeing when living with a chronic illness like cancer are particularly heightened as a child. Instead of worrying about the newest superhero toy, or their little league baseball game, the days of pediatric cancer patients are consumed by medication, procedures, and discomfort. Navigating the emotional and physical burdens of cancer as a child puts children at greater risk for mental distress and illness. Studies confirm childhood cancer patients see higher rates of mental distress, illness, and lower perceived quality of life (Desjardins et al, 2021). This strain on mental health only exacerbates the challenges of battling a chronic illness like cancer. While poor mental health is difficult to address in such a young population, early detection and proactive screening can provide hope to mitigate these burdens. 

Lasting Implications of Distress 

Even those who battled with cancer as a child and are now well into survivorship as an adult, still suffer from mental illness and distress. In a study done of childhood cancer survivors (CCS) there was a greater incident of mental distress and greater risk for neurodevelopmental and suicide ideation than those who’ve never faced a cancer diagnosis (Lown et al, 2015). This prompts the need for early and proper intervention to be preventative against the onset of mental illness. Lown study emphasizes the importance of coupling services, stating that for interventions to be effective “screening must be paired with referral for support, education, and treatment as appropriate” (Lown et al, 2015). 

Pediatric Screener Addresses Gaps in Pediatric Mental Health Care 

In a 2021 randomized control trial of youth cancer patients’ responses to psychosocial screening measures, the biggest barrier to success in the screening measures was the follow-up execution following the screening (Desjardins et al, 2021). Developed by researchers in the Pediatric Oncology Branch of the National Cancer Institute (NIH NCI), National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and technology through Patient Planning Services & Cancer Support Community, Checking IN is an evidence-informed digital distress screening solution for pediatrics. The evidence-informed tool is a web-based distress screening measure for patients (age 8-21) with chronic medical conditions and their parents. Checking IN pediatric screener includes real time feedback and automated tracking of endorsed domains that provide clear identification of trends, problem areas, and psychosocial risks. The automated referrals address the gap of improper follow-up seen in previous pediatric screenings. The screener captures the perceptions of a child’s distress from both the patients and the parents, encouraging a comprehensive and effective approach to understanding and tackling mental distress. Preventative screening measures with automatic referrals like Checking IN are at the forefront of spurring the necessary proactive and innovative efforts required to mitigate the mental burdens of childhood cancer. 

Lown, E. A., Phillips, F., Schwartz, L. A., Rosenberg, A. R., & Jones, B. (2015). Psychosocial Follow-Up in Survivorship as a Standard of Care in Pediatric Oncology. Pediatric blood & cancer, 62 Suppl 5(Suppl 5), S514–S584. 

 Desjardins, L., Hancock, K., Szatmari, P. et al. Protocol for mapping psychosocial screening to resources in pediatric oncology: a pilot randomized controlled trial. Pilot Feasibility Stud 7, 143 (2021). 

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