Man with mental health issues

Mental health, cancer and COVID-19

10 October 2020
Cristiana Fonseca

Cristiana Fonseca, Health Education and Capacity Building Department Coordinator

Portuguese League Against Cancer

2020 is the year that everyone will remember as the one that made us all STOP and think about our lives and the way we are living. It has been (and continues to be) a tough year, particularly for those living with cancer and their carers. We were forced to be confined in our houses, we lacked contact with our loved ones, we put all of our activities on hold, And this has undoubtedly had an impact on our mental health.

The daily struggle of trying to bring the virus under control and to find solutions meant there were and still are people waiting to do early diagnosis examinations (such as breast screenings), to be called for a consultation, an operation or even for therapy. Therefore, it is no surprise to learn that high levels of anxiety, fear, isolation, social distancing and restrictions, uncertainty and emotional distress have become widespread, reinforcing the importance of speaking about it on World Mental Health Day.

It is therefore of great significance and importance that the theme for 2020 is Mental Health for All: Greater Investment – Greater Access.

This is even more important as we are currently driving for Universal Health Coverage (UHC), articulated as a key target in the sustainable development goals for good health and wellbeing. To make health for all a reality, governments need to invest in mental health and for that, they must address the needs and preferences of individuals, families and communities. In this particular moment, it is fundamental to address the mental health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on citizens.

Cancer patients are living longer than ever before, but the mental health impact of living under the shadow of diagnosis is an under-recognised area and nowadays much darker due to COVID-19 measures.

The future is even more uncertain now as we are unsure of how the virus will evolve and much has yet to be discovered on how it affects cancer patients. We must adapt in order to protect ourselves and others but we can’t let this constant state of high alert lead to uncontrollable anxiety.

This new reality in which all of us are living now has changed our interactions and calls for a reflection about what (and who) really matters. Social distancing and isolation have a significative impact and are highly challenging for our mental health. Not everyone deals with it in similar ways, sometimes there will be frustration, fear, anxiety, anger and we must be above all very tolerant and exercise patience in order to avoid conflicts.

The daily reports of COVID-19 deaths is an additional issue that can't be avoided. We are always grieving: we grieve because we are confined, without our friends, we have to change habits and routines, because we lost our freedom and ultimately because we lost our health and in some cases, we will grieve because we lost someone and we couldn’t say goodbye.

We know that COVID-19 is here to stay, so it’s important to keep focused on the present. It is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle and a balanced diet, rest, stay physically active, avoid tobacco and alcohol use. It’s important to maintain positive and confident thinking. We must be optimistic regarding the future in spite of the difficulties.

With a degree in Psychology and a Masters in Health Education, Cristiana Fonseca has worked for 20 years in Primary Cancer Prevention and develops Health Promotion Programmes in school and community contexts. 

Last update: 
Saturday 10 October 2020