In 2007, cancer was diagnosed in 10,400 children and adolescents under the age of 15 years.1 While cancer remains the second leading cause of death in children, increasing numbers of children with cancer are surviving into adulthood.2 Over the past 30 years, 5-year survival rates for children with cancer have significantly improved, from 59% in 1975 to 1977 to 80% in 1996 to 2004.3 Pediatric cancer, increasingly considered a chronic rather than an acute condition, is an intense emotional and physical experience for patients and their families.4
Comprehensive psychiatric assessment of these children is complicated by symptoms of medical comorbidities that overlap mental health conditions. Few resources exist to guide clinicians in the psychiatric treatment of children with cancer. This article describes the sparse research from small clinical studies on the extent of psychiatric treatment in children with cancer and evidence from outcome studies of medication use in these children. Minimal knowledge on the role of antidepressants in such children motivated us to examine the question in a broad population-based approach.
One area of interest in caring for children with cancer is the prevalence of psychiatric diagnoses. Assessment of psychiatric disorders in these children from either research or community settings is difficult because of the complex medical and emotional presentation of illness.5,6 DSM-IV criteria for mood disorders, for example, include both somatic and cognitive symptom criteria, and clinicians must decide which symptoms are caused by the illness and treatment and which are related to a separate psychiatric diagnosis.7
In addition, doctors and nurses may overestimate psychosocial distress and symptoms in children and adolescents with cancer.6 Assessment tools for psychiatric disorders are not often validated in children with medical illnesses, which may lead in part to the varying research prevalence of psychiatric disorders in this population.8
Reports of psychiatric illness in children with cancer range from a high of 17% to rates that do not differ significantly from those for the general population.9 Specific cancers and their treatments may also contribute to the variable rates of depression. Without more precise estimates that generalize to large youth populations, it is unclear whether children with cancer are at higher risk for a psychiatric disorder than children who are not medically ill.
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