Medically Ill Complications

Although most children with a chronic medical illness do not experience a major psychiatric disturbance, the overall risk of psychiatric disorder is somewhat greater than that in the general population of children with no chronic physical illness. When medically-ill children do develop problems, evidence suggests that these present primarily as internalizing syndromes, such as anxiety and depression, and persist over time (DeMaso, Martini, & Cahen, 2009).


Is It Medical or Is It Psychological?

There is a tendency to dichotomize the psychiatric problems of medically ill children into ‘‘medical’’ versus ‘‘psychiatric” or “functional.” The distinction however is often not that simple. “Functional symptoms” is a phrase doctors often use (or misuse) that seems to make intuitive sense to people without really having a clear definition. Functional generally describes physical symptoms for which no physical causes can be found, and the unspoken implication is that the physical symptoms are secondary to psychiatric problems.  Another similar term is “medically unexplained physical symptoms” (MUPS). 

How doctors educate patients about functional or MUPS problems is important.  The physical symptoms may be due to physical causes that can’t be found by modern tests.  The physical and psychiatric symptoms may be caused by the body and/or brain not working properly; therefore, functional symptoms may be caused by mental factors, physical factors, or a combination of both.  A treatment approach that is usually most effective with patients is to try to figure out the causes together rather than implying that it is “all in their heads.”


There has been little research to develop psychotherapeutic or psychopharmacologic interventions specifically for medically ill children and adolescents.  The most promising evidence exists for cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) although most of the studies have been conducted with adult samples (Allen et al., 2006; Escobar et al., 2007; Perez-Benitez et al., 2013)


A bereavement model has also been used to help conceptualize the process of adaptation to a physical illness and to guide treatment intervention. The emotional responses to physical illness or disability can be viewed as a process that begins with shock and denial and proceeds through feelings of anguish and frustration toward an assimilation of illness information and adjustment (DeMaso, Martini, & Cahen, 2009).


It is also important to remember that psychiatric problems may result from symptom attacks or medical procedures that were perceived as life-threatening.  Up to 80% of pediatric patients and their families report experiencing some traumatic stress following illness, injury, hospitalization, or painful medical procedures. Left untreated, traumatic stress reactions can negatively impact medical adherence, treatment, and recovery. 


Medical doctors (M.D.’s or D.O.’s) have the most extensive training on the physical body relative to other clinical professions.  However, any type of licensed clinician (e.g., PhD, LCSW, or LPC) may be excellent if he or she has made a commitment to understand and work with this population.


If you are a local provider in the New Orleans region and an expert in any of these areas, please let us know so we can highlight your expertise for consumers.  Contact us as [email protected].

One local resource is Tulane University School of Medicine’s Triple Board training program.  Triple Board residents train in Pediatrics, General Psychiatry, and Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in order to integrate the clinical knowledge of pediatrics and psychiatry.  The Triple Board Clinic is a resident-run clinic with supervision for medical and psychiatric issues by Pediatric and Child Psychiatry attending physicians.   They provide initial child and adolescent psychiatric evaluations, medication management, and psychotherapy on a sliding scale basis. (504)-988-4794

Mental Health

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) - Pediatric Medical Traumatic Stress Toolkit for Health Care Providersoffers of compendium of tools to guide medical professionals in effectively assessing and treating medical traumatic stress in children and families, resources in English and Spanish

General Support Groups and Information for Chronic Conditions

Medical Home Portal – For Parents and Families.  Contains much information to help care for a child with chronic and complex conditions – Including navigating transitions with your child:

Disorder-Specific Resources

Brain Injury

Brain Injury Association of Louisiana – Support Groups:


Lighthouse for the Blind Louisiana – Youth Services:


Children’s Oncology Group (COG) – Family Handbook for Children with Cancer –Provides information regarding hospitalization, types of pediatric cancer, etc., and also provides a section about caring for your child and family:

Children’s Oncology Group (COG) – Coping with Cancer – Multiple websites providing information on community support, school support, brief information on feelings and behaviors, and grieving and palliative care:

Look Good Feel Better Program for Teens –2bMe – interactive teen website that teens can access information on dealing with their appearance, and social and psychosocial issues of a cancer diagnosis and treatment:

Cystic Fibrosis

Cystic Fibrosis Foundation – Louisiana Chapter – contact information and link to yearly event calendar (walks, golf, bowling, plus more):


Epilepsy Foundation Louisiana – Support Programs:


National Fibromyalgia Association


Sickle Cell

Sickle Cell Center of Southern Louisiana – Transitional Clinic – Designed to help adolescents and young adults (ages 16-25) learn more about their sickle cell disease, provide special education, and psychosocial support as they transition from pediatric to adult care:

Baton Rouge Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation:

Sickle Cell Disease Association of America (S.C.D.A.A.) – Provides links and contact information to sickle cell disease centers in Louisiana:



Allen, L.A., Woolfolk, R.L., Escobar, J.I., Gara, M.A., Hamer, R.M. (2006). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for somatization disorder: a randomized controlled trial. Archives of Internal Medicine 166, 1512-1518.

DeMaso, D. R., Martini, D., &Cahen, L. A. (2009). Practice parameter for the psychiatric assessment and management of physically ill children and adolescents. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 48(2), 213-233.doi:10.1097/CHI.0b013e3181908bf4

Escobar, J.I., Gara, M.A., Diaz-Martinez, A.M., Interian, A., Warman, M., Allen, L.A., Woolfolk, R.L., Jahn, E., Rodgers, D. (2007). Effectiveness of a Time-Limited Cognitive Behavior Therapy–Type Intervention among Primary Care Patients with Medically Unexplained Symptoms. Annals of Family Medicine 328-335. DOI: 10.1370/afm.702.

Perez-Benitez, C.I., Zlotnick, C., Gomez, J., Rendon, M.J., Swanson, A. (2013).  Cognitive behavioral therapy for PTSD and somatization: an open trial. Behaviour Research & Therapy.  51(6):284-9.

- Updated March 27, 2019