Written by Mike Merchant, President of the ANASAZI Foundation.
Several years ago, I woke up with a terrible pain in my midsection. I had eaten fish the night before and assumed I had food poisoning. As the day progressed, my pain got worse. That night, I went to bed early, hoping to feel better in the morning. I tossed and turned and couldn’t sleep. At 4 a.m., I drove to my office to get some work done (my way of getting better!). After an early meeting, a coworker noticed I was hurting. She said I looked “green,” and urged me to call my doctor.
I told the doctor I was sure I had food poisoning. He told the nurse to take my blood, and sent me home. By the time I reached the parking lot, I was doubled over in pain. I knew I couldn’t drive. I called my wife, Gaylene. She came to the doctor’s office and immediately took me to the hospital. The emergency room doctor was convinced my pain was caused by kidney stones. He gave me morphine, filled me with dye, strapped me to a table, and took pictures of my insides. After a few hours he was convinced I had passed the stone, and sent me home. I was feeling much better (thanks to the morphine).
Exhausted from the experience, I fell asleep in the guest room. I woke up at round 5 a.m. with the most excruciating pain I have ever felt. This time I had a fever. I lay there in the dark and quietly pleaded for someone to help me. Seconds later, the door opened. It was Gaylene. She woke with a feeling that something was terribly wrong. She grabbed her keys and nearly carried me to the car.
On the way to the hospital, Gaylene tried to comfort me by telling me it was going to be okay. By now, I wasn’t sure I was going to be okay or that anyone could help me. When we reached the hospital, I was screaming with pain. As I flopped back and forth on the emergency room bed, I couldn’t imagine living another moment in my circumstances. Nothing else mattered but relief from my pain–even if it meant dying.
Suddenly, Gaylene caught sight of a family friend walking past the emergency room door. She jumped up and ran after him. “Dr. Brinkerhoff, Dr. Brinkerhoff,” she yelled. “My husband is hurting and needs your help.” She pulled him into the room. He looked at me and said to the nurses, “We need to cut him open, and fast.”
For the first time since I became ill, I felt like someone truly knew the cause of my pain and could help me. His words instantly gave me hope. Several hours later, I opened my eyes to see my beautiful Gaylene sitting by my bed. She explained that my appendix had ruptured and was infected. Without surgery, I would only have lived a few more hours.
Untreated Emotional Pain
Not unlike my experience with physical pain, emotional pain can bring intense feelings of hopelessness and despair. Often, the cause of emotional pain is misdiagnosed and as a result, remedies only bring temporary relief at best. Untreated emotional pain can grow to be so extraordinary that one may feel the only possible relief is to perish.
Unfortunately, there are far too many young people with this degree of pain–some with only a few hours to live! To save their lives, they will need an attentive friend–one who sees their pain and carries them to help–as well as a skilled physician who can perform the needed surgery.
Being an Attentive Friend
In our fast-paced world, we can easily become disconnected from people–especially the young people in our lives (who in this Digital Age seldom connect with anyone). Disconnected, we miss important developmental milestones and changes in emotions and behaviors.
There are, however, simple things we can do daily to refresh ourselves to the humanity of the young people around us. It may be helpful to make a list of young people in your life and then ask, “When was the last time I personally connected with each person?”
Connections are windows in time when two people can openly share thoughts and feelings with one another. If we are connecting regularly, we will be more aware of others’ needs–and most importantly, they will feel that their life matters to someone. One fear is that connecting will take time. It may; however, it may also turn out to be the most rewarding and enjoyable time of all. It is during these times that we have the most influence to help things go right for others.
When connecting with young people, it is helpful to know the symptoms of emotional pain:
- Feelings of despair, hopelessness, or worthlessness
- Easily agitated or quick to anger
- Sadness or tearfulness
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Loss of interest in things that were once important
- Changes in eating and sleeping habits
- Expressions (talk, artwork, emails, music, etc.) of death or suicide
- Reckless or risky behaviors
It is not uncommon for young people to experience a wide variety of emotions and behaviors; however, dramatic changes in personality, mood, or behavior are often signs of a deeper problem. If the symptoms persist and/or are harmful to self or others, make every attempt to connect. If the young person will connect, ask questions and listen–long enough to discover the source of their pain–then develop a plan together to find help to relieve the pain. The plan should include reconnecting daily, until help can be secured.
An effective resource when seeking help is an educational consultant (see ieca.org). Educational consultants who focus on special needs have made it their profession to do assessments and recommend programs (i.e., wilderness therapy, residential treatment centers, therapeutic boarding schools, etc.) that will be the best fit for each of their clients. Educational consultants visit programs regularly and work in tandem with the family and program therapists (once the child is placed in an appropriate program) to help develop the most effective aftercare plan.
If the young person is unwilling to connect, it’s best to use direct questions like, “Are you thinking of killing yourself/harming yourself?” or “Do you feel depressed?” rather than, “You’re not gonna do something crazy are you?” If no one in the young person’s circle of relationships is able to connect with them, seek the help of a skilled physician.
*Note: If you suspect that a teenager you know is suicidal, take immediate action! For 24-hour suicide prevention and support in the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
Finding a Skilled Physician
There are many causes of severe emotional pain in young people (i.e., environmental, biological or developmental changes, loss, trauma, poor nutrition, guilt, issues related to sexual experiences or identity, etc.). Because the symptoms are often the same, it is easy to misdiagnose the cause. Each cause will require a different set of skills for effective treatment. If the cause is misdiagnosed or treatments are recommended that are not effective or sufficient (e.g. getting drug therapy without any follow up or from a doctor who does not specialize in that area), the afflicted person is left even more hopeless than before, because they fear the “treatment” has not worked and so they are doomed to suffer.
Begin with an assessment from a board certified and licensed psychologist. Listen carefully to the treatment recommendations. If there are any reservations or concerns regarding the recommendations, it is appropriate to seek a second opinion. If it is recommended that the young person be admitted into a program, an educational consultant can use the assessment made by the psychologist to help find the appropriate placement.
There is hope. These conditions are treatable. However, do not delay. Young people in their developmental years are usually more responsive than adults to the right kind of care and treatment. Having spent years in the field of behavioral healthcare, I have watched lives be changed every day at the hand of attentive friends and skilled physicians.
This article was written by Mike Merchant. Mike is the President of ANASAZI Foundation—a nonprofit and nationally accredited outdoor behavioral healthcare provider for youth, young adults and their families. ANASAZI recently published “The Seven Paths: Changing One’s Way of Walking in the World”. Mike is also the president of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs and was the former president of the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council.