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Good mental health for young people affected by serious illness

If someone you love has been diagnosed with a serious illness, your mental health can take a hit. Here are some tips that can help.

You’ve probably got a lot of feelings about the fact your brother, sister, māmā or pāpā, boyfriend or girlfriend or any loved one has been diagnosed with a serious illness. We all react differently but you might be worried, angry, frightened and sad, or more.

It’s important to know that these feelings are normal and there is help available – talk to us or see our list of support organisations that can help.

Looking after your mental health

Just like our bodies can become unwell, our minds can become unwell too. This can be triggered when we’re stressed or faced with difficult life challenges, like serious illness.

Learn more about common mental health problems that can happen when you’re affected by serious illness. There are tips to help you cope, but you can also access 1-on-1 therapy from Kenzie’s Gift.


Serious illness can trigger some very strong feelings that can be hard to cope with, and anger is one of them. It’s normal and healthy to feel angry when there’s good reason, like facing serious illness. But it’s important to manage those feelings so you don’t hurt yourself or others.

Think about whether you:

  • Hit or physically hurt other people.
  • Shout at other people.
  • Hang out with people who get you into trouble.
  • Break things.
  • Lose control.
  • Deliberately wind people up.

If you do, you could do with some support to help you manage your anger. If you don’t get help, anger can lead to other problems like eating problems, depression, risky behaviour, refusing to go to kura / school, becoming isolated, self-harm, drinking too much alcohol or taking drugs.

If you’re feeling angry there are things you can do to help yourself, like:

  • Talk to someone about how you are feeling – that could be your mātua / parents and caregivers, friends, whānau or a teacher you like.
  • Going for a walk to get some fresh air.
  • Taking some deep breaths or meditating.
  • Doing exercise or anything you love, like reading, listening to music or watching your favourite show.

Problems with anxiety are really common. Anxiety is the feeling of fear or panic. Most people feel anxious, panicky or fearful at certain times in their lives – it’s normal to feel nervous before an exam, driving test or plane journey, for example. But once the difficult time is over, they feel better and calmer.  Sometimes though, the feelings of fear or anxiety continue. This is when anxiety becomes a problem and can affect your everyday life.

You might be experiencing anxiety if you:

  • Feel frightened, nervous or panicky all the time.
  • Feel down or depressed.
  • Have trouble sleeping or eating.
  • Can’t concentrate properly.
  • Feel tired and irritable.
  • Have heart palpitations (that fast-beating, fluttering or pounding feeling).
  • Have a dry mouth, trembling, faintness, puku / stomach cramps or diarrhoea.

Tips to help:

  • Talk to someone about how you’re feeling – that could be your mātua / parents and caregivers, friends, whānau or a teacher you like.
  • See your doctor.
  • Get active for 30 minutes a day or more.
  • Take time each day to relax or do something you love.
  • Focus on eating and sleeping well.

It’s normal to occasionally feel down or upset by certain things going on in your life. A serious illness diagnosis can sometimes leave you feeling sad, lonely, down, anxious or stressed for longer periods of time.

If these feelings start to impact on your everyday life and are preventing you from doing things you’d normally do and enjoy, you may be experiencing depression.

Symptoms of depression include:

  • Not wanting to do things that you normally enjoy.  
  • Not wanting to meet up with friends or avoiding social situations.  
  • Sleeping or eating more or less than normal.
  • Feeling irritable, upset, miserable, self-critical, hopeless, lonely or tired.
  • Maybe wanting to self-harm.

It’s ok to ask for help - the first thing to do is talk to someone. You could talk to your mātua / parents and caregivers, a friend, someone in your whānau, a teacher you like, your doctor or one of Kenzie’s Gift therapists.

Tips to help:

  • Get some fresh air and exercise as often as you can.
  • Do things you enjoy.
  • Try to eat regularly even if it’s small meals.
  • Write down how you’re feeling.
  • See your doctor.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

When something traumatic or life threatening (like a serious illness) happens to a loved one (or you) it can affect you physically and mentally.

PTSD is normally felt in 1 of 3 ways:

  • Flashbacks or nightmares. You keep remembering the traumatic event and get flashbacks or nightmares, reliving the event.
  • Avoidance and numbing. You’re scared to think about what happened, so  you keep yourself really busy to keep your mind occupied.
  • Being on guard and unable to relax. You may feel anxious, jumpy or irritable all the time and unable to let your guard down because you’re scared that the traumatic event will happen again.

You might experience PTSD immediately after a traumatic event or it may start weeks, months or years later. Symptoms normally appear within 6 months.

Tips to help:

  • Talk to someone about how you are feeling – that could be your mātua / parents and caregivers, friends, whānau or a teacher you like.
  • See your doctor.