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KNOXVILLE — A University of Tennessee psychology professor has received a $72,000 grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health to study and treat clinical depression in cancer patients.

Over the next year, Dr. Derek Hopko will use the grant money to conduct one-on-one counseling sessions with cancer patients who also suffer from depression. The weekly, one-hour sessions will take place over a 10-week period.

Dr. Derek Hopko

Hopko said depression often goes untreated among those who are in remission from cancer, as well as those currently fighting the disease.

“Our mission is to identify people that have cancer and also are clinically depressed,” Hopko said. “There’s good research that suggests that 35 percent to 50 percent of individuals with cancer also suffer from depression.

“Unfortunately, research also strongly indicates that depression often goes unrecognized in medical care settings.”

When someone makes an initial contact with his treatment team to participate in the program, Hopko said, they complete several questionnaires to determine the significance of depressive symptoms and overall quality of life. If the person shows evidence of clinical depression, they are invited to begin weekly counseling sessions.

Hopko said the study includes assessing a person’s attitudes and aspirations in a variety of life domains, such as social and intimate relationships, work and education, health and fitness, hobbies and recreation, and spirituality. Researchers then work with patients toward identifying particular behaviors and help them engage in behaviors that would be consistent with established values and goals, he said.

Hopko said treating people with depression is a slow and careful process.
“We start by having patients engage in behaviors that might require less energy, to experience some immediate positive feedback, then throughout the 10-week program, progressively move toward accomplishing more difficult behavioral assignments,” Hopko said.

For example, patients interested in becoming more physically fit would not have to run five miles. Instead, they would start walking for five minutes a day, then increase the duration of walking in subsequent weeks.

At the end of the program, the participant’s emotional well-being is reassessed with another series of questionnaires to see if they achieved relief from depressive symptoms.