The Docs: Are superstitions a sign of deteriorating mental health? Why do parents keep a diagnosis of an illness from their children?

— By Michael Roizen, M.D.

and Mehmet Oz, M.D.

King Features Syndicate

Q: My mom believes that if you spill salt and then don’t throw some over your left shoulder, you’re in for bad luck. I’ve asked her why she thinks it is true but she just says, that’s the way things are. Where do superstitions like this come from, and why do people cling to them? -- Greta J., Lafayette, Louisiana

A: Some say the superstition about spilling salt bringing bad luck originated with the overturned salt cellar in front of Judas Iscariot at the Last Supper, an incident portrayed in Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting of the occasion. And throwing salt over your shoulder puts the bad luck behind you. But as to your question about why people cling to them, well, the answer to that isn’t simple, but (knock on wood) we can unravel it for you.

Superstitions have been around as long as there have been humans searching for a way to explain or protect themselves from things that threatened survival and couldn’t be explained. They make misfortune manageable either by promising to banish it or by absolving someone of responsibility for their behavior. Superstitions about lucky charms (a four leaf clover) can relieve anxiety and allow people to feel more in control of their destiny. Whenever someone feels less anxious and more in control, they can cope better. That’s why some superstitions, like your mom’s, are probably harmless.

But there are instances when superstitions are a sign of distress and should be addressed. That happens when superstitions transition into the realm of obsessive-compulsive disorders. Being so nervous about bad luck that you won’t leave the house on Friday the 13th or hoarding if you believe it’s bad luck to throw something away may call for medical and emotional support.

Q: I just found out my dad has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He told me that it’s an indolent form and there really isn’t anything to worry about. But what ticks me off is that he was diagnosed over a year ago! I’m 16, and I deserved to be told! Why would he do that? -- Lucy D., Nyack, New York

A: It’s generally a combination of several reasons that keeps people from telling others about their -- possibly life-threatening -- diagnosis. Your dad might not have wanted to burden you; he may have felt embarrassed; and it’s very likely that it took him time to come to terms with the diagnosis and be able to share the news. So don’t be too tough on your dad, Lucy. Whatever the reason, he’s being upfront with you now.

It’s your turn to figure out the right things to say and do over the coming months or years that will help him manage his cancer. That’s not always easy, and the right moves can change radically, depending on the progression of the condition. But you can take comfort in research that shows having team support when coping with cancer (or other diseases) helps in making smart treatment decisions, eases anxiety (which can tax the immune system) and improves quality of life.

So ask your dad why he didn’t tell you about his diagnosis sooner, and listen to what he says. Then tell him (just this once) that the more transparent he is with you, the more he’ll benefit from everyone working together. The American Psychological Association recommends the following for the patient (you can show this to your dad):

n Communicate directly and be open with family members.

n Include your children. Be open, though you can skip tough details with younger kids. Encourage them to ask questions.

n Be clear about how family and friends can help. Ask for help if you need it.

Family members should adopt these approaches:

n Learn about the disease (from reliable sources) so you can evaluate what doctors are saying. But don’t claim to be the No. 1 expert!

n Don’t poke, just be there. Don’t ask for constant updates.

n Do things together that are fun.

Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. Email your health and wellness questions to Dr. Oz and Dr. Roizen at youdocsdaily(at sign)

(c)2019 Michael Roizen, M.D. and Mehmet Oz, M.D.