The Three Things You Must Do for a Mentally Ill Person

February 25, 2013
Daily Health News
Stephen Kisely, MD, PhD

When a friend or loved one has a mental illness, you know how hard it can be for that person to simply make it through the day.

Practically every day-to-day task is tougher for someone who struggles with clinical depression, anxiety, schizophrenia or another major psychiatric disorder.

Now a new study finds that, unfortunately, people who suffer from these types of conditions have yet another thing to worry about.

They’re at a higher risk of dying from a certain kind of disease.

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But if you know someone who is mentally ill, there are three key things you can do that might help the person lower his or her risk…


For the study, Australian researchers analyzed people who had been diagnosed with at least one major psychiatric disorder in addition to cancer. The psychiatric disorders included the conditions mentioned above…postpartum disorders…and attempting self-harm or suicide.

Surprisingly, the researchers discovered that people with major psychiatric disorders were 8% to 14% less likely to get cancer than people who did not have psychiatric disorders. But the real shocker was that, compared with people who were not mentally ill but who had cancer, psychiatric patients with cancer were 29% to 52% more likely to die from cancer.

So why are the mentally ill less likely to develop cancer? The answer isn’t clear, said Stephen Kisely, MD, PhD, lead author of the study, but there are clues. Past research has shown, for example, that people with schizophrenia may have extra protection against the development of cancer because they have excess dopamine, enhanced natural killer cell activity and other biological differences. Prior studies have also shown that relatives of people with schizophrenia have a reduced risk of developing cancer, so a broader genetic reason may be at play. Similarly, various unknown biological factors associated with other psychiatric disorders may provide some protection against cancer. Another explanation could be the possible protective effects of medications, including antipsychotics and antidepressants, especially in the case of colorectal cancer, Dr. Kisely said.

But perhaps more importantly—why are the mentally ill more likely to die from cancer if they do get it? “We found that psychiatric patients are slightly more likely to have advanced cancer at the time of diagnosis,” said Dr. Kisely. The findings showed that just 6% of the general population had advanced cancer at the time of diagnosis, whereas 7% of psychiatric patients did.

But what really chilled me was this—“We also found that most mentally ill people aren’t getting the cancer treatments that they need,” Dr. Kisely said. In fact, his study showed that, compared with other cancer patients, mentally ill cancer patients were 19% less likely to get cancer surgery…were significantly less likely to get chemotherapy…and received less radiation therapy for particular cancers, such as breast, colorectal and uterine cancers.


So what can you do to help prevent a mentally ill loved one or friend from dying of cancer? Follow these tips from Dr. Kisely…

1. Ask a question. Specifically, ask the person, “When is the last time you saw a doctor for a physical?” It’s possible that psychiatric patients are getting diagnosed with more advanced cancer because they’re not seeing a general physician at least once a year—so there’s less opportunity for a doctor to catch the cancer at its earliest stage. Seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist isn’t enough. If it has been more than a year since your friend or loved one’s last thorough physical checkup, try to make one happen.

2. Listen carefully. If your loved one says something in passing such as, “This pain in my stomach is annoying, but it’s probably nothing,” don’t take it lightly. The person’s mental illness might be preventing him or her from recognizing the severity of the pain or, deep down, the person might be too depressed or anxious about the pain to make an effort to seek help for it. Tell the person, “Please call your doctor to make sure it’s not something serious”—then follow up to make sure the person follows through.

3. Provide company at doctor visits. If and when a doctor visit occurs, go with your loved one, if you can, or make arrangements for some other supportive person to go. This increases the odds that the person actually will go. What’s more, a supportive friend can help communicate problems to the doctor…write down the doctor’s advice so the patient remembers…and encourage the patient not to reject needed treatment. The loved one’s presence and support also may be reassuring to the doctor who otherwise might hesitate to suggest treatment for fear of disturbing a mentally ill person’s equilibrium.

Bottom line: Our friends and loved ones with psychiatric illnesses have enough to deal with already…and I believe that we should all try to keep cancer off of that list.