Caring for Spouse With Cancer May Increase Caretakers’ Risk for Anxiety, Depression and Other Psychiatric Disorders

The risk for psychiatric disorders increased for spouses of patients with cancer compared with those whose partners did not have cancer.

Spouses of patients with cancer may have an increased risk for several psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse, highlighting the need for mental health awareness, recent study findings demonstrated.

“Efforts on interventions to assist caregivers’ mental wellbeing are still in their infancy,” the researchers wrote in the study published in JAMA Network Open. “Our study therefore reinforces the importance of awareness among families of patients with cancer, health care professionals and society at large regarding the vulnerability of patients and their families, especially female patients with cancer, patients with more aggressive types or advanced stages of cancer and during the first year after cancer diagnosis.”

In this study, researchers analyzed data from 546,321 spouses of patients with cancer and compared them with 2,731,574 spouses of people without cancer. Of the spouses from both groups, 46% were men and had a median age of 60 years. Follow-up was conducted for a median of 8.4 years for spouses of patients with cancer and 7.6 years for spouses of individuals without cancer.

During follow-up, 6.9% of spouses of patients with cancer developed a psychiatric disorder compared with 5.6% of spouses of individuals without cancer. The risk for developing a psychiatric disorder during the first year after cancer diagnosis increased by 30%. This was particularly increased for stress-related disorders and depression.

Throughout follow-up, this increased risk for developing a psychiatric disorder increased by 14%. The risk was similar for developing depression, substance abuse and stress-related disorders. The increased risk for psychiatric disordered was more pronounced in spouses of patients who were diagnosed with cancer with a poor prognosis (i.e., pancreatic cancer) or a cancer diagnosed at an advanced stage. The risk was also increased in spouses of patients who died during follow-up.

“The higher risk increase observed in male spouses, especially after the death of the patient with cancer, might be attributed to both the lower baseline risk of psychiatric disorders among men and the fact that, given their different social roles and sources of emotional support, men might in general be less prepared for caregiving and coping with bereavement than women,” the researchers wrote. “Regardless, this finding suggests that male spouses of patients with cancer might be a high-risk group of mental illness.”

Some spouses included in the study had a preexisting psychiatric morbidity, meaning that they were previously diagnosed with a psychiatric condition. For these spouses, the risk for developing a new psychiatric condition or being diagnosed again with the same condition increased by 23% throughout follow-up.

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