My mother has been depressed since her cancer diagnosis; how can I persuade her to see a therapist?

9 answers | Last updated: Dec 08, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...
My 64-year-old mother has been depressed since her diagnosis with breast cancer, and her doctor has recommended that I take her to see one of the hospital's therapists, but she refuses to go. How do I persuade her that she needs help?

Expert Answers

Michele Francis is a clinical social worker at the University of California, San Francisco, Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Many cancer patients resist seeking help for depression. Just the word therapist or psychologist has a negative meaning for them. Your mother may feel that her problems "really aren't that bad." I recommend using the term counselor with her, and explaining that it's very common for cancer patients to see one. In fact, that's why hospitals and clinics have on-staff social workers with special training in oncology.

If your mother strongly resists seeing a counselor, you could suggest she join a support group for cancer patients instead. Of course, she may resist this as well, as many older folks are very private and nervous about sharing personal experiences in a group. One strategy that often works is to present the group as a source of information. You might suggest that meeting other patients will give your mother the chance to hear about treatment options that you and she don't know about.

In my experience, this is the most compelling thing you can say as a caregiver to encourage your mother to get help: "It would really help me if you would go and see someone. This situation is too much for me -- I can't handle all this by myself." Your mother may not be willing to get help for herself, but if she understands that the burden is too much for you, that may matter to her more.

Sometimes, unfortunately, the only thing that works is a "tough love" approach. You may have to tell your mother, "I can't continue to help you unless you meet these conditions." Then you find a support group or make an appointment with a counselor and tell her that she must at least try it out if she wants you to continue as her caregiver. It sounds harsh, but you're actually helping her break through her denial about needing help.

Most important, though, you have to take care of yourself or you can't be there for your mother. All the studies show that nothing is more stressful than caring for someone who's sick. Even if you can't persuade your mother to get help, you can get help for yourself. Your mother's distress is probably adding to your own sense of guilt, frustration, and hopelessness, and you can seek support for those feelings.

Caring for a parent with cancer is an intense experience -- people are shocked by how exhausted and stressed they feel, and no one can truly understand except others who are in the same situation. Many hospitals and communities offer caregiver support groups, and I strongly recommend this to anyone who's caring for a parent with cancer. Joining one can make a big difference in your own mental health.

Community Answers

Littlesister answered...
I can't explain why, but there is such a dramatic stigma associated with anything mental health related in the eyes of our parents. Perhaps because it was such a taboo subject in their younger adult years. One thing that may help your mom is explaining that visiting a counselor or therapist isn't a committment to a weekly appointment, taking medications or other things that may be in the back of her mind. Stress to her that you'll be with her to discuss any treatment just as you are when she she seeks treatment for her cancer. Assure her that what she's dealing with is big and life altering. We're not talking about a little "blue" spell. Seeking help on learning how to deal with her feelings isn't a sign of weakness, it's a sign of strength and will to live well.

Anaprilrose answered...

As a survivor of 3 different kinds of cancer (including breast and stage 4 lung cancer with mets to the brain)I can tell you that a certian amount of depression is normal after that life altering diagnoses, and subsequent treatments.  Its expected that your Mother will go through a period of mourning life as she knew it, as well as a new view on her body image, especially if she has had or is faced with mastectomy.  

I would not suggest "strong arming" her into getting help. She does not know what she wants or thinks right now and her emotions are topsy turvey. Everyone around her is telling her where to go, when to go, what to do, and what to eat.  And her life is consumed with Dr.s and tests. (She probably doesnt even want to think about going somewhere else or more demands on her time or energy!)

 What I would suggest is letting her know that she will have a better clinical outcome if her spirits are high (Its clinically proven that stress weakens your immune system and lowers your ability to fight this disease. But do not lecture her (she already feels helpless like a child...what she needs is a non-judgemental friends that she can openly discuss her fears and unfullfiled dreams with.

  You can also find little ways to put humor and meaning back into her life. Talk about funny things that happened when you were a child, tell her jokes or post funny little sayings around the house, rent funny movies and laugh with her . (you as her caregiver need a little levity as much as she does.  You wont do her much good if the stress causes you to get ill.)  Encourage her to get back involved in activities she use to enjoy.  Anything you can to get her mind off of the diagnosis. Trust me it is all consuming if you dont find a way to get your mind off of it. 

When the two of you are in Dr.s offices take the inititive and strike up conversations with other people about their diagnosis.  If your Mother sees others talking openly about their disease (and most of them will) she might begin to talk about her own, as well as getting a different view point on what cancer really means.

Encourage her to take short walks (as she is able)  Exercise increases endorphines in the brain which helps to fight depression.

Above all stay positive, pray together, and let her know that others have beat this dreaded disease.

You are in my prayers!


Here's something else to think about: perhaps someone in her circle of friends has a success story of seeking professional advice --  from clergy, doctor in the family, even support hotlines.

I have found that patients do not want to go through another experience that might be isolating. Mental health issues are taboo to many in our parents' generation. Remember, many of our current day psychological developments were being discovered in their youth and were probably seen as crazy at first.

If your mom hears that a mutual friend got good advice from a professional, she may be inclined to pursue that same venue. Encourage that. She does not want to be alone, especially in these unchartered waters. Don't give up trying to help her, but let it be her decision. That's when she will get the best results, too. 

Octoman answered...

anaprirose I think you are spot on with your answer,you cannot beat a thoughtful person who has experienced a problem ,stress is such a big factor with cancer.laughter such a help.excercise is so good for near eighty I love all forms of exercise it boosts me up.What a inspiration you are,I have only so far survived untreated stomach cancer for 7 years so you are indeed exceptional.

Deb v answered...

If your mother has a friend or relative closer to her age you might approach, they could be helpful in convincing her. Also, if she is a churchgoer, her minister is likely to be supportive. My mom listens to me about some things but not others, so knowing others she trusts and asking for their assistance has proved of significant help. Plus, the more support from friends and loved ones at a time like this, the better.

Stitchymom answered...

I recently finished my last Herceptin treatment for breast cancer, so I feel that it is current. First of all, it is not abnormal to feel depression. Secondly, friends may say they understand, but unless you have walked the road of cancer, you cannot truly understand. I live in El Paso Texas and I have the most amazing support group. It is important to meet others who have beat the disease. I wondered why I was saddled by the disease, but I never questioned God. Since I have been diagnosed, I was able to show others that at some time you feel better after chemotherap. At some time you get your hair back. You take the good with the bad. I have met so many long term survivors. There is always hope while the doctors are willing to treat you. Really, seeing other survivors did the trick for me. Here in town I met a woman who was a 41 year survivor and heard about a 44 year survivor. Cancer isn't a death sentence, but an opportunity to conquer it and help others who may be afraid or depressed.

Octoman answered...

Therapists can be good but they also can be bad . like doctors. you could get a therapist who needs therapy as much as you .like I did . Cancer is a shock horror word . It can traumatise you, It takes time to come to terms with. Love can find a way love of god . love of life,same thing to me,can help. Sorry, been there, done that,I survived so can she. Love to you all.

Protection answered...

As a breast cancer survivor for nearly 5 years I can tell you that being diagnosed with breast cancer is very frightening. I would highly recommend that you speak with a support group on your own and ask if someone from that group could give your mother a call. When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer I knew no one that had ever had breast cancer. The support group gave me so much insight and I will be forever grateful for their help and support.

Blessings to you both...