Life after cancer: mental health of the young (adolescents and young adults) and peer support

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Life after cancer: mental health of the young (adolescents and young adults) and peer support

Mental health of the young and mental health of the young suffering from cancer

There is a significant conflict between the demands of the developmental stage and the demands of the disease

1. They want more independence from their parents and they gradually start developing a sense of independence and taking control of their lives, but cancer and demands of treatment provoke a sense of dependence, lack of independence, and loss of control over their lives

2. Peers gain tremendous importance in adolescent’s life, a sense of belonging and closeness in the peer group develops, but cancer provokes a sense of isolation and not belonging based on the uniqueness of the experience that a person goes through during the diagnosis and treatment.

3. A sense of sexual identity and attraction develops, but cancer treatment can affect sexual health and a personal sense of sexual attractiveness

4. Executive functions, such as planning, organization, mental flexibility, and reasoning are being developed, but cancer treatment impairs cognitive functions, and may also affect achievement at school or at work, as well as making significant educational and career decisions

5. There is a very strong need to shape their future, to make meaningful plans for the future, but the disease and the treatment make the future seem vague, unclear

What is peer support?

Peer support is a term that refers to the exchange of support among people who share the same experience, do not necessarily have vocational education, and use the experience they had gone through as a source of support. Peer support groups provide environment for exchanging experiences, accepting new points of view, considering concerns and doubts, raising awareness of personal strengths and resources, and gaining the confidence for facing the future.

Internet peer support

Online peer support is a community connected to a specific site, in which members exchange information, provide each other with emotional support, help each other cope more easily with problems that trouble them, and develop confidence in their problem-solving abilities.

Adolescents and young adults gladly use the Internet to satisfy diverse needs characteristic of this age group, which is the reason why online peer support is well received at that age. The advantage of Internet support is its accessibility to people who are tied to their homes or live in geographically remote areas. In addition, it ensures anonymity and a higher level of privacy for those who do not wish to reveal their identities or are too reserved to share intimate details concerning their lives in person.

Why is peer support important for adolescents and young adults with cancer?

Adolescents and young adults suffering from cancer face challenges which are typically important at this age, such as starting romantic relationships, making decisions about reproduction, tackling issues related to identity development, establishing a sense of managing your own life and becoming independent, making educational and career decisions, etc. The experience of having cancer requires additional effort to overcome these challenges. Peer support communities help young people feel that they are not alone in this complex procedure of fighting a disease that fundamentally changes their way of life. Users of peer support cite the opportunity to share their experience with someone else who has gone through the same health crisis as the main benefit of peer support. Authenticity, shared experience and empathy are among the most cited factors that provide basis for getting closer, opening up and becoming open to receiving support.

What are the specific benefits of peer support?

1. Sharing emotions about one’s own situation and the challenges that one faces brings emotional relief and a sense of acceptance and understanding

2. Exchange of information on available resources in the community and practical support regarding access to these resources encourages the feeling of managing one’s life

3.  Exchange of experience and the opportunity to learn from others who have been in the same or similar situation has a positive effect on confidence in finding solutions to problems

4. Belonging to a support community helps reduce isolation and feeling of loneliness

What does peer support entail?

Emotional support

Emotional support facilitates dealing with feelings of fear, anger, sadness, and loneliness by creating an atmosphere of mutual understanding and compassion and acknowledging feelings of all the parties involved.

Information support

Information support is the process of sharing information, usually gained through personal experience, about treatment types and procedures, medication and its side effects, diet, exercise and physical activity, mental health, reproduction, romantic relationships, education, careers, etc.

Support in overcoming problems and challenges

Members help each other change their attitude towards frustration and difficult experiences so as to handle them better and find a positive side which makes even some of the hardest experiences valuable.

Support related to identity and life after cancer

Members encourage each other to accept cancer, the cancer treatment, its consequences and everything that life after cancer brings. Together they attempt to find meaning in what they have been through or what they are still going through and help each other embrace this experience as a part of their identity.

The importance of supervision

Online peer support projects are complex. It is unrealistic to anticipate everything that awaits us once the online communication starts. Many things are not entirely under control and it is to be expected that supporters will face challenges which were not discussed in detail during the training and for which they are not prepared.

Thus, the success of peer support largely depends on good monitoring and supervision, as well as continued education. Monitoring and supervision enable the supporter to take challenges in their stride, positively impact the supporter’s confidence and prevent burnout.

Supervision is a type of support to supporters. It entails regular meetings of supporters for the purpose of supervision. The goal of supervision meetings is to preserve the emotional and psychological well-being of supporters and to give them the necessary skills and knowledge which are required in realistic support situations. In these meetings, we discuss typical topics which arise in communication, as well as typical challenges in texting and emotional aspects of communication and support giving. These topics can be discussed in groups or individually with a professional.

Monitoring includes regular meetings of supporters with a project coordinator and discussion of important practical matters which impact the quality of peer support. It entails providing logistic support to supporters, monitoring the frequency, duration, and type of given support, overseeing the schedule, individual engagement and the workload of supporters, as well as the frequency of follow-up support, and providing additional training and supervision.

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