Supporting the mental health of people affected by cancer during COVID-19

Written by: Claire Benjamin, Head of Fundraising & Communications, Cancer Support Scotland (Tak Tent)

Published: 16/09/2020

"When we applied for the Wellbeing Fund, we had 57 people waiting for immediate support, with just one staff counsellor in our team..."

Wellbeing has been Cancer Support Scotland’s (this link will take you away from our website) priority for more than forty years, so we know just how crucial access to wellbeing support during times of uncertainty can be. Our wellbeing services (this link will take you away from our website) equip people with the tools to live well with cancer, offering a range of person-led options to ensure anyone affected by cancer can get the support that is right for them, and at no cost to them.

In recent months, everyone has been affected by the pandemic – but for those coping with cancer, the challenges have been compounded. The virus places people receiving certain cancer treatment at a higher risk, and the additional challenges people affected by cancer have faced as a result of the pandemic have had very real consequences for their mental and emotional wellbeing.

Since March, we have responded to increased demand for support from people with rapidly escalating feelings of anxiety, stress, fear, worry and isolation – many of whom are already socially or financially isolated and facing multiple challenges in their everyday lives. The Wellbeing Fund awarded Cancer Support Scotland essential funding at a critical time, bolstering our capacity to deliver telephone and digital mental wellbeing support and ensure more people could access the support they needed, when they needed it most.

When we applied for funding we had 57 people waiting for immediate support, with just one staff counsellor in our team. Our wonderful volunteer counsellors demonstrated overwhelming commitment to their roles, however with demand rising every day and the escalating impact of lockdown on the mental health of people affected by cancer, we were in danger of reaching crisis point. Between March and July, we offered 23% more counselling sessions to people in need compared with the same period last year. Thanks to the Wellbeing Fund, we were able to employ 6 fixed-term, part-time counsellors, offer every single person on our waiting list a counselling slot and keep our waiting times for new referrals to under one week.

People who, at no notice, found themselves isolated from their loved ones and their regular social contact have been able to receive immediate and regular support. Many people coping with cancer didn’t want intensive counselling, but welcomed a friendly voice from one of our ‘Here for You’ wellbeing calls or the flexibility of our online self-care tools. The feedback has been resoundingly positive, with the most common themes being the value of people knowing they are not alone, they have not been forgotten and someone is thinking of them.

The people we exist to support have shown exceptional resilience and tenacity in the face of huge challenges over recent months, and we are proud to have been able to help people cope better with what cancer means to them in the world of COVID-19. We have learned a huge amount about the needs of those we support, the importance of resilience and creative thinking and the value of our incredible staff and volunteer team. All of these learnings will help inform our direction in the future.

Before COVID we operated in-person services, and we are absolutely certain that there remains a need for these to be reinstated when safe. However, the need for digital support to continue beyond the period of physical distancing is also clearly evident. For many people, travelling to access support is not feasible for reasons such as practicality, mobility, cost or time, and for some, the privacy afforded by their own home and shorter time commitments are two key elements which help to make services more accessible. By offering digital, telephone and online support services we have been able to reach more people who would otherwise have faced barriers to support.

The Wellbeing Fund was a highly welcome funding opportunity for Cancer Support Scotland and we are exceptionally grateful for all those it has enabled us to support. However, the demand for our counselling service in particular shows no signs of easing. As we move through the phases, many of those we support are feeling increasing anxieties about the prospect of returning to ‘normal’ and what this may mean for them. Those coping with the emotional consequences of changes or delays to treatment, pauses to promising clinical trials, a sustained period of social isolation or having been being unable to spend final moments with loved ones continue to need effective, timely and person-centred support to cope with the impact on their mental wellbeing. COVID-19 is still very much affecting all of our lives, and we hope to see further long-term investment to ensure people across Scotland can live well with cancer.

COVID-19 has presented us with incomparable adversity, but it has also provided acute clarity: good wellbeing is an essential component of a prosperous, inclusive society and it must be given the recognition it deserves. Cancer Support Scotland’s priority remains to protect and improve the wellbeing of those affected by cancer, and we very much look forward to collaborating with our colleagues across all sectors to put wellbeing at the heart of our recovering society as we build back better.

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Cancer Support Scotland (Tak Tent)

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