Mental Health Care is Helping Children with Cancer Live Better
Charm Mercado is a thin and rather shy man in his early twenties. He uses two crutches, having lost his leg a decade ago to osteosarcoma, a cancerous tumor in the bone.
Growing up with cancer, Mercado used to have constant resentment toward the people around him. He believed the world was unfair. He found himself constantly cursing at God, his doctors and nurses, out of frustration.
“There are criminals, robbers,” he recalled. “Why did [God] give me cancer? I just want to take care of my Tita. I just want to help her,” said Mercado, who spent his teenage years with cancer.
The distressing environment of the hospital was not helping. Soon enough, his aunt became the only person he could talk to.
Things started to change when he was introduced to Kythe, an organization that offers psychosocial support to the children with chronic health conditions. He joined the child-friendly activities of Kythe such as origami, painting, and summer camps making friends with children who were also sick. He learned that there were kids who were in the same situation he was in. Some kids had it worse. But, he was not alone anymore.
“Kythe told me that you need to fight for your family. You need to fight your illness,” he said.
Positive results of mental support in children with cancer
For 26 years, Kythe has been providing psychosocial support to children with chronic illnesses in the Philippines. It was first started by two graduate students of psychology, Icar Castro and Girlie Garcia-Lorenzo, to help pediatric patients with cancer in government hospitals.
Dr. Angie Sievert-Fernandez, a developmental psychologist working for Kythe found the benefits of Child Life Program in a study she conducted. According to the study, the children with chronic illnesses who received hospital-based support from Child Life Program for at least six months showed lower level of anxiety than their counterparts who did not have access to any psychosocial support.
“Those with exposure drew with more colors. Even if there was medical equipment [in the drawing], it was smiling. The choice of color was different. There were other persons with them,” said Dr. Sievert-Fernandez.
Children who do not have access to the program showed the same or higher level of anxiety through their drawings which were represented by dark colors and poorly drawn pictures according to the same study.
“If you look at the literature, it will tell you that children who are chronically ill and who are not supported through their healthcare setting experiences are more likely to grow up as adults with chronic pain problems, depression, anxiety. They are more likely to drop out of school. They are more likely to experience sleeping problems.”
Child Life Program works with university students who volunteer to engage with children in the hospital’s playrooms. It is also a chance for the pediatric patients to socialize with someone outside of the hospital setting.
Kythe has served more than 2,700 pediatric patients across hospitals in the Philippines. Garcia-Lorenzo, Kythe’s co-founder, believes psychosocial support is essential in keeping pediatric patients mentally healthy, helping prevent mental illnesses during or after the medical treatment. But government officials still see it as a luxury. Only two government hospitals pay for the salaries of Child Life Coordinators.
“In terms of priority, [the government] will always prioritize equipment, doctors, and nurses. We are at the bottom of the list,” said Garcia-Lorenzo.
Continuing support despite setbacks
Despite its success, Kythe faced its fair share of challenges. When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013, it caused nation-wide devastation. Donors and funding organizations redirected resources to rehabilitation.
Climate change programs took center stage. The shift of funds seemed to make sense. The Philippines ranked 5th most vulnerable country to climate change, according to the Global Climate Risk Index 2018.
As a result, many non-profit organizations in the Philippines lost funding, including Kythe. In order to adapt, Kythe also shifted their focus from providing services to building capacity.
This setback might have forced Garcia-Lorenzo to take a step back and shift her approach. Now, her organization found a way to self-sustain amidst the challenges.
“I just keep planting and planting seeds. And somehow, somewhere, sometime, those seeds will flourish, those seeds will bloom. Maybe not in my lifetime but at least I am doing it already,” said Garcia-Lorenzo.
I just keep planting and planting seeds. And somehow, somewhere, sometime, those seeds will flourish, those seeds will bloom. Maybe not in my lifetime but at least I am doing it already.
Building capacity also meant recruiting cancer survivors like Mercado. He now visits hospitals every Wednesday to play with chronically ill children as a Child Life coordinator. He has been working with Kythe for the past three years. It’s a way of giving back after overcoming life’s challenges.
“I need to help kids in the same situation, so they can smile again,” he said.
Aung Kaung Myat is a Communications Intern at Ashoka Philippines. He is currently studying journalism and history at the University of Hong Kong. He is interested in social issues, human rights and Southeast Asia politics.