Debilitating stomach pain, persistent diarrhea, rectal bleeding, dietary restrictions – As though the teenage years aren’t challenging enough, adding the symptoms of gastrointestinal conditions to the mix can make navigating adolescence especially difficult.
When licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Alyssa Ward joined our gastroenterology and nutrition team two years ago, her teenage patients began asking for a support group almost immediately.
“Kids with conditions causing abdominal pain and impacting bowel function often have limited social support for their challenges,” said Dr. Ward. “There is stigma around talking about both bowel and mental health issues, so these teens have barriers to meeting others who share their experiences. The things they are going through aren’t the kind of thing you typically chat about with friends.”
Dr. Ward looked to the literature and determined that dialectical behavior therapy held promise to help these adolescents with the support and skills they needed to cope with their conditions and the complex emotions that come with them. DBT is a psychotherapy approach that goes beyond a standard support group and focuses on mindfulness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance and interpersonal skills. It has been shown to be effective in improving quality of life for teens with a variety of chronic diseases and mental health problems.
“Serotonin, which is known to help regulate mood and social behavior, is in both our brains and guts. It makes sense, then, that children suffering with gastroenterological disease who have inflammation in their gut are at risk to have anxiety and depression.”
-Alyssa Ward, PhD
“We’ve taken the evidence-based DBT approach and tailored it specifically to adolescents with gastrointestinal conditions. In the group setting, they’re able to talk about their similar challenges, test new emotion regulation skills and process their experiences together,” added Ward.
The 17-week group, led by Dr. Ward and her post-doctoral fellow, Meredith Chapman, PhD, meets every Tuesday from 4:30 – 6 p.m. in the Children’s Pavilion and is open to teenagers 13-18. The first session included six teens, all of whom signed up immediately upon hearing about the group and many of whom drive from more than an hour away for the professional and peer support.
“I never got to talk to other kids my age until now,” said one member. “I get to laugh.”
“I really like having other teens validate my feelings instead of an adult,” added another.
The group has provided many opportunities for members to flourish. Older members are able to serve in leadership roles, while their younger counterparts can look up to these mentors. Throughout the course of her illness and treatments, the eldest member of the group has even determined that she’d like to pursue a career in psychiatric nursing.
“I’m really inspired by these teens,” said Dr. Ward. “They’re helping each other overcome their difficult, stigmatized health issues and thriving in the process. It is a privilege to be able to witness their emotional growth and its positive impact on their physical health.”
To learn more or register for the next session, contact Dr. Ward at (804) 628-4959.