As a mental health professional, one of the main tenets I believe in is that mental health is significantly connected with many different aspects of a human being. More specifically, mental, spiritual and physical health are all interwoven; when one of these three elements is not functioning well, the other two will be impacted in some way. At one point in our recent history, it was believed that physical ailments were simply that, physical ailments, and there could not be any connection with other problematic situations in a person’s life, such as depression, anxiety, or stress. Gradually, however, this “compartmentalized” view of human health has begun to shift.
A fascinating study was done by researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and published in the August issue of the academic journal Pediatrics. They sought to find what was occurring in adolescents and youth who reported having acute stomach aches on a regular basis, and for which no physical cause could be found by doctors. What they discovered was significant: children with these unexplained pains were between two and three times more likely to be experiencing anxiety while they were young, as well as for developing depression as young adults. More interesting still – when the physical pain was relieved, presumably through use of medications, the anxiety and depression still remained in the study participants. In other words, anxiety was not caused by the stomach pains themselves.
A pediatrician here in the Okanagan has stated to me personally that for some patients, despite the very best treatment and efforts, nothing seems to work, and it is only prudent at that point to seek out answers that go beyond the regular arsenal of treatments and medications. In my own practice, it is very common to have an adolescent come see me who, as I discover, not only has trouble getting along with his family, but also seems to be always battling an illness or chronic inability to sleep, for example. Though I quickly acknowledge I cannot prove a connection between physical and mental health with these individuals, it is nonetheless interesting just how often such a phenomena appears to be present.
So what does all this mean for a parent wanting to raise children in the healthiest way possible, or a youth struggling to understand how to feel his or her best? Let me suggest three different suggestions to consider.
1) Be aware of any tendency, with self or others, to constantly have a set of physical problems or illnesses that seem to linger. It can be easy to attribute a physical ailment to environmental or other tangible factors, and many times it can be cured with the help of your doctor. However, repetitive ailments may be sending a different message, and be an indicator that something more is occurring. This is a question you should discuss with family and with your doctor as well.
2) Do not be afraid to ask what might be bothering your child or youth, and potentially could in turn be a contributing factor in their being ill over an extended period of time. Everyone needs to feel safe, respected and cared for in order to feel their best. Could one of these factors need to be addressed? Ask what makes them happy these days, and what makes them angry. Have a conversation and be fully present, and be ready to potentially hear something you were not expecting! Seeking genuine answers in a non-threatening way with children and youth may be a significant step toward finding better overall health.
3) Bring other members of the family, friends, or even professionals into the “circle” and begin a conversation about any emotional challenges they notice your child may be facing. Are they seeing anything interesting? Sometimes the observations of someone close to the family can be revealing and helpful!
Repeated or prolonged illness in a young person can be a result of a very active flu season, a virus making its rounds, or even something such as inadequate nutrition or sleep. However, in some cases prolonged illness can in fact be a message that something less obvious is present, and waiting to be addressed. As the study at Vanderbilt has shown, stomach ailments without a clear physical cause can be one indicator of just such a potential message. The question is: are we open to acknowledging and even investigating this message?