Study Examines Rates of Psychiatric Disorders and Self-Harm Among Patients Diagnosed Across 26 Cancer Types

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The risk of self-harm after incident psychiatric disorder diagnosis in patients with 26 cancer types and the risk of unnatural deaths after self-harm were examined in 459,542 individuals in a study published by Chang et al in Nature Medicine.

Patients with cancer may experience substantial psychological distress due to neuropsychiatric effects exerted by tumors, adverse reactions to physically demanding cancer treatment, and substantial social and emotional impact from cancer and its sequelae. Cancer leaves permanent pathologic alterations that imprint on people’s lives—even when signs of active disease are no longer present. Patients with preexisting mental health conditions may be prone to relapse during the cancer journey, whereas individuals without a history of mental health may face competing demands from cancer that could distract physicians from recognizing and diagnosing psychiatric disorders.

Information on the total burden of psychiatric disorders across all common adult cancers and therapy exposures is scarce. It prompted the study authors to estimate the risk of self-harm after incident psychiatric disorder diagnosis in patients with cancer and the risk of unnatural deaths after self-harm.

Study Methodology

Using data from primary care practices and hospitals, the total burden was quantified and not just the first event of psychiatric disorder and self-harm. The prevalence of mental health diagnoses before and after self-harm demonstrated that previous diagnoses of psychiatric disorders are important predictors of self-harm. The prevalence ratio was higher among younger individuals, as they are more likely to be referred for specialized psychosocial cancer care. Patients with depression had the highest risk of self-harm—especially within 12 months of diagnosis—suggesting higher vigilance needed during this initial critical period. The risk of suicide and other causes of death was significantly higher in patients who harm themselves, particularly within 12 months of the first self-harm episode.

Depression was the most common psychiatric disorder in patients with cancer. Patients who received chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery had the highest cumulative burden of psychiatric disorders. Patients treated with alkylating agent chemotherapeutics had the highest burden of psychiatric disorders, whereas those treated with kinase inhibitors had the lowest burden.

All mental illnesses were associated with an increased risk of subsequent self-harm, where the highest risk was observed within 12 months of the mental illness diagnosis. Patients who harmed themselves were 6.8 times more likely to die of unnatural causes of death compared with those who did not within 12 months of self-harm (hazard ratio [HR] = 6.8, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 4.3–10.7). The risk of unnatural death after 12 months was markedly lower (HR = 2.0, 95% CI = 1.5–2.7).


The authors outlined several limitations of their study. They have not considered tumor stage and grade due to insufficient data. They acknowledged the possibility of surveillance bias between patients with psychiatric disorders and in those without. Although the use of population-based records provides robust and representative data, there remains a risk of underreporting of self-injurious behavior due to stigma. The analyses were adjusted for socioeconomic deprivation to reduce the impact of the biases. The effects of psychiatric interventions on cancer survivorship can be explored in the future.

Guideline for Management of Depression

The authors underlined that an evidence-based care guideline of the Cancer Care Ontario Program for the management of depression in adult patients with cancer published by Li et al in JCO Oncology Practice proposed specific recommendations:

  • Screen patients with cancer for depression
  • Provide psychoeducation, destigmatize depression, and investigate medical contributors to depression (eg, vitamin B12, iron, and folate levels, as well as hypothyroidism)
  • Provide pharmacologic and psychological interventions
  • Assess depression severity and follow stepped-care approach
  • Consider collaborative care interventions involving oncologists, primary care practitioners, and psychiatrists
  • Refer to mental health specialists when there is a risk of self-harm
  • Consider psychological therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Consider the use of antidepressant medication for severe depression.

Disruptive behavior in patients with psychiatric illness may interfere with cancer treatment and continuing care. Unlike mental health physicians, oncologists may not receive adequate training in dealing with behavioral problems, and there has been limited guidance on managing clinical and legal risks associated with these clinically complex scenarios. Multidisciplinary support for the primary physician is crucial, especially in the ambulatory oncology setting.

The authors concluded that the patients with both cancer and mental illness experience premature mortality and are at greater risk of self-harm. They provided an extensive knowledge base to help inform collaborative cancer-psychiatric care initiatives by prioritizing patients who are most at risk.

Disclosure: For full disclosures of the study authors, visit

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.