COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — For adults, talking about mental health issues like anxiety, trauma and other conditions is accessible. For children, expressing these mental health concerns may not be so simple. However, local experts explained parents, physicians and educators can team up to help children work through the physical and mental manifestations of these conditions.

Local parents and professionals gathered at St. Luke Ministry Center at 11:30 a.m. on Monday to listen to “Anxiety & Functional Abdominal Pain—the Brain-Gut Connection,” a panel hosted by the Pastoral Institute about addressing youth mental health concerns.

“An adult can tell you they’re feeling anxious,” said Dr. Donna Yeiser, owner and practitioner at Columbus Pediatric Associates. She continued on to explain children, even though they may not call it anxiety, could show symptoms with nightmares, trouble sleeping, abdominal pain, unrealistic fears and a desire to avoid school.

“It’s not just the words ‘I’m anxious.’ You really have to look at the whole picture,” Yeiser said.

Yeiser was one of five panelists, including Tonya Lindsey, lead social worker with the Muscogee County School District; Courtney Simmons Lamar, a school-based mental health coordinator with the Department of Prevention and Intervention Practices; Krista Overby, a licensed clinical social worker with the Pastoral Institute and Dr. Carter Wallace, a pediatric gastroenterologist with Southeastern Gastroenterology.

While the panel discussed youth mental health as a whole, it was primarily focused on what organizers called the “Brain-Gut Connection.” The term refers to the way in which anxiety or other mental health issues can cause stomach aches, a symptom seen in children.

Professionals warned not every stomachache means a child is dealing with anxiety or other mental health stressors, however stressed parents should keep an eye out. According to Wallace, 85% of pediatric patients who come to him experiencing stomach pain are experiencing it as the result of a “non-organic” cause.

These non-organic pains could be the result of anxiety, stress or conditions like ADHD which the professionals said could appear at the same time as conditions like anxiety. Wallace noted he can prescribe medications to aid the condition, however they often prove ineffectual at treating stomach pains and he tends to recommend talk therapy instead.

Panelists also emphasized the importance of working with children to address some of their fears and help them feel safe. They acknowledged sometimes the best way to help a child through anxiety is encouraging them to do the thing they are fearful of, such as going to school. Additional steps parents can take include keeping their families on a minimally processed diet to reduce stress associated with digestion of processed foods, said Wallace.

“Always keep the line of communication open, whether they’re five years old or whether they’re 18 years old,” said Yeiser.

“I really feel like parenting is such a key part of a child’s emotional well-being and their mental health,” she continued, adding pediatricians and other healthcare professionals are ready to help address any concern’s parents may have about their child’s mental health.

The “Anxiety & Functional Abdominal Pain – the Brain-Gut Connection” panel cost $20 per person and included lunch. It was the first event in the Pastoral Institute’s 2023 “Week of H.O.P.E” mental health campaign.