Sunday, January 12, 2014

Mental and Emotional Health as Ghost Players

I have become painfully aware of how often mental health is overlooked in the allergy community. Listening to friends, getting to know others at conferences, and interacting with clients, the mental health toll of allergies shows itself in many conversations.

Anaphylaxis is a trauma, both physically and mentally, but too often only the physical symptoms are treated.  Once the immediate threat has been resolved, treatment stops.

The trauma is as real for the person experiencing a reaction as it is for their caregivers and siblings. The focus of medical treatment is on the person experiencing the reaction, and the emerging focus for mental health support is for the caretakers.

Living in the high stress state of constant vigilance to avoid allergy triggers is every bit as stressful as an anaphylactic reaction, and can produce symptoms of PTSD on its own.

Many parents are not aware of the degree to which this impacts our children.  We understand that they have stress around their allergy, but it's hard to gauge the level of stress without open discussion.  The reason these conversations are tricky is that children live with this stressor daily and do not know that this level of stress is not normal- it's all they have known. In addition, kids are egocentric and assume that we intuitively know what their reality is, though they often create stories in their head that are surprising to us.  I have talked to more than one parent who was surprised by the misperception or fear their child had about their own allergy.  (Often these realizations don't come until the children are teenagers and young adults, as an aside during another conversation.)

I could write for weeks about the impact on the allergic individual, the equally profound but totally separate impact on caregivers, and the most frequently overlooked impact on siblings.  Each family member carries part of the allergic experience.  Mental health support can benefit the entire family.

The bottom line: don't be afraid to seek mental health support- for yourself and for your kids.  It does not mean you are flawed or sick, or that your coping skills are not adequate.  It means that you are making sure that the burden you are carrying is being carried in as healthy a way as possible so that you can enjoy the process of living to it's fullest.  It means you are letting your children know it's ok to talk about their allergy experience and learn additional coping strategies for the stress it brings.  Most importantly, it honors the truth that living with food allergies is hard, and extra support does not need to be reserved only for major mental health crisis.

Mental health care for allergic individuals is an emerging field, and the need is under recognized not only by professionals, but by the allergy community itself.  We think 'it's tough some days, but I've got this, I don't need mental health support'.  This is true for some of us, and for many that I have spoken to it is not.  Many carry the signs of PTSD without knowing it, many show signs of living with a trauma without realizing it.

I want to create not just healthy bodies for our kids, but healthy minds and attitudes.  I think our children have remarkable stress management skills, resiliency, and strength.  I want to be sure it continues to be a healthy part of who they are rather than a burden.  Most of all, I want everyone to reach for support with ease, and find the need met.

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