Doctor Connects Sickness In Children To Stress, Figures Out Way To Properly Treat It

Nadine Burke Harris, a San Francisco-area pediatrician, first opened her pediatrics clinic in a low-income neighborhood within the city, and immediately noticed the high rates of sicknesses like asthma and other afflictions in her young patients. She vowed to determine why so many she saw were so sick.

The Washington Post shares the symptoms Harris regularly saw in her patients.

“They would have chronic abdominal pain, headaches, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, opposition defiant disorder. It could be that all these different kids have all these diagnoses, or it could be that there is one thing at the root of this.”

The physician turned to a study which showed that there is a strong link connecting chronic diseases and sickness with traumatic experiences during childhood. Such traumas include physical abuse, neglect, or residing with a family member or caregiver that is addicted to drugs or alcohol. Harris was aware that the children she treated, were exposed to “doses” of adversity and it all became clear that trauma and stress was impeding the development of their brains as well as their bodies development.

The pediatrician then began to use a whole new method at her practice to properly evaluate and treat the children she saw. Harris began to evaluate not only the children’s medical histories but their social histories as well. As opposed to simply treating their symptoms, she began to seek help for the children in addressing the cause of their stress, which in turn was making the children ill.

Screenings of all children at the clinic were conducted for any traumatic experiences endured or that are ongoing in the lives of the patients. Those who screened positive for trauma were the treated at a whole new medical center, built by Harris. The Center for Youth Wellness, which opened in 2011, is a center where children and their parents can see mental health workers and learn about relaxation techniques, mindfulness and can meet with case managers who then connect them with social services.

This new approach to health care has earned Harris recognition across the nation. Her efforts have been noted in a best-selling boob by Paul Tough, as well as in a documentary film. The health center has also attracted major sponsors that include Google.

Harris was also asked to speak at the White House conference on the subject of trauma. Additionally, the physician was honored this past week in Pittsburgh with the Heinz Award for the Human Condition. It is one of six awards given annually by the Heinz Foundation who display “exceptional Americans, for their creativity and determination in finding solutions to critical issues.” It has a $25,000 prize attached.

About her work and the progress she has witnessed via her center and novel tactics for treating children who suffer from trauma, Harris states, “I think we have reached a tipping point.”

Harris has ignited an initiative by The American Academy of Pediatrics to launch the Center on Healthy, Resilient Children in 2014, a center to help pediatricians identify children with stress that is toxic to them. Pediatricians are being trained at various facilities using the techniques taught at the center.

Although it is a task that puts additional pressure on doctors who already are intended to balance a heavy workload during their 15-minute visits with each patient, to then treat for emotional and mental trauma and determine a cause, Harris sees the medical community responding to the concern and evolving to meet the needs of patients.

“Does it seem like a difficult problem to solve? Yes. Does it seem harder than cancer? I don’t know,” she said. “Medicine and public health are all about solving hard problems.”

[Featured Image by Mario Villafuerte/Getty Images]