April 2, 2024

Winship research suggests interventions to address higher mental health care needs in parents caring for children with cancer

Photo of Winship research suggests interventions to address higher mental health care needs in parents caring for children with cancer

Senior author of the study Xu Ji, PhD, MSPH

A new study published recently by JAMA Network Open examines the prevalence of mental health challenges faced by parents caring for children diagnosed with cancer. The research, which analyzed data from privately insured parents across the United States spanning from 2010 to 2018, challenges previous studies on self-reported mental health conditions and provides the first evidence of actual mental health service utilization among parents of children diagnosed with cancer in the United States.

Senior author of the study Xu Ji, PhD, MSPH, researcher at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University, assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics and Aflac Cancer & Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, emphasizes the significance of the study, stating, "Our findings highlight potential benefits from existing standards of care that recommend routine psychosocial assessment and interventions, which could improve access to mental health care referral and treatment for caregivers."

Key findings from the study include:

  • Parents caring for children with cancer had higher probabilities of visits related to anxiety (10.6% vs. 7.0%), depression (8.4% vs. 6.1%) or any mental health conditions (18.1% vs. 13.3%) compared to non-cancer families during the first year of their children’s diagnosis.
  • Even after adjusting for sociodemographic characteristics such as insurance coverage, family structures and mental health history, there were substantial increases in the probabilities of parents having anxiety-related, depression-related and any mental health-related visits among families of children with cancer.
  • Increased mental health utilization was observed among both mothers and fathers, yet with mothers showing greater increases compared to fathers.
  • Among mothers caring for children with cancer, enrollment in high-deductible health plans and residing in rural areas were associated with a lower probability of mental health-related visits.

Lead researcher Xin Hu, PhD, MSPH, conducted the research while a doctoral student at Emory University Rollins School of Public Health, where she remains an adjunct faculty member in the department of pediatrics, in addition to her current role as assistant professor of Public Health Sciences at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. Hu summarizes the essence of the research, stating, "We found significant increases in the likelihood of having health care visits related to anxiety and depression among parents caring for children with cancer, as compared to parents of children without a cancer history."

Hu adds, "We developed a robust algorithm using administrative claims that allows us and potentially the larger health service research community to measure real-world utilization in mental health services among an understudied population that may have high needs for mental health services."

“Our findings also reflect the increased risks of mental health challenges faced by parents following their child’s cancer diagnosis,” Ji adds, emphasizing the importance of addressing these risks.

Additionally, Hu hopes to further explore the differences in mental health needs between parents, stating, “The differences between mothers and fathers are interesting and potentially important to look further into; were the differences driven by differences in biological responses to stress, caregiver role or unmet needs?”

Explaining the motivation behind the research, Hu notes, "The psychological stress from caring for seriously ill family members is well documented. As health services researchers, we are intrigued by the actual service utilization among this population given their potential high needs for mental health care."

The researchers plan to further research potential unmet mental health care needs and identify barriers to maintaining mental well-being for parents of children with cancer, utilizing a mixed-methods approach.

This study underscores the importance of addressing the mental health needs of parents of children with cancer, while also emphasizing the necessity of implementing interventions to support parents’ well-being throughout their caregiving experience.




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