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Community Spotlight: Mental Health Month for clinicians

October is Mental Health Month in Australia, and this month we are shining our community spotlight on mental health.

Clinicians are at the front line when GI cancer patients receive the most devastating news of their life, particularly through the COVID-19 pandemic – but clinician mental health is often overlooked.

“There is no doubt working with people who are experiencing distress related to a cancer diagnosis has the potential to impact the mental health and wellbeing of clinicians,” said A/Prof Haryana Dhillon, leading AGITG member.

“Chronic workforce shortages, limited equipment, fears about [COVID-19] infection, and adapting to a constantly changing situation have substantially contributed to the burden of mental health concerns amongst clinicians. With the move to physical distancing, remote working, and split team, there was also the breakdown of some of the informal support networks amongst clinicians and fewer opportunities to engage in debriefing conversations that are helpful in processing challenging situations and clinical encounters.”

Some key challenges to emotional wellbeing for those caring for cancer patients, according to Pancare’s 2019 Carer Feasibility Study Report, include: “feelings of ‘compassion fatigue’, fear, sadness, anger, disempowerment, guilt, anticipatory grief, a need for respite and peer support”.

For advice geared towards clinicians who are concerned about mental and emotional wellbeing, we spoke with A/Prof Dhillon and PanSupport Emotional Wellbeing Counsellor, Mira Patel.

“The word ‘cancer’ instils fear in most people – it does not discriminate, and the impact on emotional wellbeing is profoundly significant,” said Ms Patel.

“There are several helpful resources that clinicians can access to care for their own mental and emotional wellbeing.”

Ms Patel’s recommended resources include:

“Remember you are part of a system and recognising when the system is sick is incredibly important – there will be many things you can’t control. Knowing this and not believing it a personal failing is critical,” said A/Prof Dhillon.

“I’m a strong advocate for regular, formal debriefing. I think everyone working in cancer care needs someone they formally debrief with on a regular basis outside their usual workplace.

“Taking time out to care for yourself is important; you can’t help others if you aren’t OK. Find the things that work for you and prioritise these as part of your daily and weekly routines.”

Associate Professor Haryana Dhillon is a behavioural scientist and psycho-oncologist at the University of Sydney, working with people who are living with cancer or working through cancer survivorship.

She is also Co-Chair of the OXTOX trial and one of the earliest pioneers of the AGITG.

Mira Patel is Emotional Wellbeing Counsellor at PanSupport.

PanSupport at the Pancare Foundation is a dedicated support team, supporting patients, carers and families affected by pancreatic, liver, stomach, biliary and oesophageal cancers.