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When a Serious Diagnosis Causes a Senior to Consider Suicide

Could a diagnosis drive your loved one to end their life prematurely?

It might, according to a newly published study, which concluded that telling people they have cancer may increase their risk for committing suicide.

Swedish researchers examined more than six million medical records, and found that people were about 12 times more likely to commit suicide in the week immediately following a cancer diagnosis than those who were cancer free.

While previous studies have indicated that the pain and discomfort associated with cancer treatment may cause some people to believe that they would be better off dead, this is the first experiment to investigate the impact of the initial diagnosis of the disease on a person's health.

Interpreting bad news—it's all about delivery

Is the mere thought of having cancer just too much for a person to handle?

While it's certainly a fear-inducing disease, the extreme uptick in short-term, post-diagnosis suicides among cancer patients suggests that there might be more to the story.

Some health care professionals believe that it's not necessarily the news itself, but how it is presented.

"The delivery of diagnostic news plays a large part in a patient's acceptance," according to Margaret Sherlock, M.A., Clinical Director of the Behavioral Health Program & Assessment Program Services at the Visiting Nurse Service of New York (VNSNY).

A diagnosis—a seemingly routine event for a physician—is in fact a multi-dimensional event that can have a huge impact on how a person responds to the news that they have a disease.

Sherlock says that how a person interprets a diagnosis depends on several factors, including: how the person was informed of their diagnosis, what that diagnosis means to that person based on their personal life experiences, and whether the person accurately understands what they were told about their disease and the treatment options.

Imagine that you're going in for a routine mammogram. Your doctor calls you back a few days later for a biopsy, after which he tells you bluntly that you have breast cancer. He doesn't elaborate on the specifics of your disease, but refers you to an oncologist whom you have never met before. Both you mother and your aunt have died from breast cancer.

How would you feel about your upcoming battle with the disease?

How much mental "bounce" do they have?

In addition to how the news is presented by the doctor, things like a senior's resiliency, and the effect that a particular disease could potentially have on their life, will influence how they mentally and emotionally process a diagnosis, according to Sherlock.

Psychological resilience refers to a person's ability to "bounce back," and handle adversity. Sherlock says that psychological resilience can be measured in terms of how a person's primary family relationships influenced their problem solving tactics.

If a senior was surrounded by love and support as they grew up, they will likely have adopted healthy coping mechanisms to handle stress. If their early support system wasn't very solid, they may have developed some potentially hazardous stress-management techniques.

Sherlock points out that, unhealthy coping techniques, such as addiction and substances abuse may increase a senior's risk for committing suicide after a serious diagnosis.

A senior's pre-existing mental health will also impact how they interpret grave medical news.

Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia may make it difficult for an elder to understand and accept a serious diagnosis, while problems with anxiety and depression may make them more prone to suicidal thoughts.

Softening the blow

Your loved one has just been told they have pancreatic cancer. The doctor was rushed and curt, and you know that your aging relative isn't terribly tough mentally.

As their caregiver, what can you do to help?

According to Sherlock, the best thing to do in this type of situation is to seek outside help for your loved one. "Therapeutic communication (therapy or counseling) is crucial following a serious diagnosis primarily because it provides an opportunity to dialogue, ask questions and process what is happening," she says.

This doesn't necessarily mean that your love done has to go see a psychologist. Seeking out a medical professional, such as a nurse, social worker, or different doctor, who can help explain a diagnosis and its implications clearly and empathetically, can go a long way towards dulling the mental and emotional pain of a diagnosis.

A caregiver can also engage in ongoing therapeutic communication with their elderly loved one by listening to the senior's feelings, and asking questions that can help them identify effective coping strategies.

Helpful queries include: "Why do you feel that way?" and "What would you like to be different about this situation?"

Being diagnosed with a severe health problem will not automatically make your loved ponder whether or not to overdose on pain medications, but it will definitely have a lasting impact on their mental state.

Sherlock says that caregivers can be an invaluable of support for their loved ones as they try to come to terms with the new reality presented by a serious illness.

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