It is estimated that in the UK one in six children and young people suffer with poor mental health.
There is a striking link between physical and mental health, with a reduced state of physical health showing strong links to decreases in mental wellbeing. Migraine is one of the most common health complaints in children and young people, it is estimated that up to 20% of the school-age population suffer from this condition.
The link between migraine and mental health is connected through the relationships between stress, pain, and anxiety.
A trigger for many migraine sufferers, studies reaffirm the relationship between stress and the onset of migraine attacks3, and suggest its role in affecting hormone levels in the body. As chemical messengers, hormones help our body to adapt and deal with stressful situations.
However, as these levels rise and fall, such large changes can act as a trigger for migraines. For many children and young people, causes of stress may be hard to avoid; stressful situations can include school, exams, and pressure they may face to ‘fit in’ with peers and expectations brought by a new age of social media.
Pain has been strongly linked with increased likelihood of poor mental health. As pain increases, often becoming a common feature in a migraine sufferers’ life, mental wellbeing can begin to suffer. Pain can start to limit physical activities and may lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness when a migraine attack causes sufferers to miss out on planned activities with friends or family.
For young people, issues in managing and communicating this pain is often an obstacle. Migraine pain is often more varied in location for children, with many experiencing stomach migraines instead of, or alongside, headaches. Just as is experienced by many adult sufferers of migraine, this can easily be dismissed as ‘just a headache’ or ‘just a stomach-ache’, or sometimes dismissed completely as ‘doing it for attention’. In recognising and validating this pain, young people can feel supported and empowered to manage their own health and ask for help when they may be struggling.
Studies have also shown strong connections between migraine and increased risk of experiencing anxiety in children and young people2,4. As pain increases and becomes a common feature in a migraine sufferer’s life, anxiety in anticipation of an attack can increase. The fear of the pain a migraine causes can in turn increase levels of stress and may therefore negatively influence the onset of a migraine attack.
Mental Health during a Pandemic
The impact of COVID-19 has been devastating, not only placing physical health at risk but also affecting the mental health of many. For migraine sufferers, many have seen an increase in attacks alongside an increase in stress and anxiety. For young people, this has been a particularly difficult time, especially for those already struggling with their mental health. A survey reported by the NHS showed that:
• 18% of 5-16 year olds with mental health issues felt they couldn’t access the support they needed
• 22% of 17-22 year olds with mental health issues felt they couldn’t access the support they needed
What can be done to help?
For those suffering with migraine and mental health alike, a few key actions may help alleviate some symptoms:
• Taking time away from your screen – not only taking a break from social media, but reducing our exposure to blue light, a common trigger for migraine
• Finding time for exercise, and getting outside when possible – known to increase our endorphin levels, helping us to feel happier and calmer
• Practice mindfulness – making some time for yourself, maybe practicing some meditation or journaling, or wind down with some yoga to help alleviate stress and reflect on our mental wellbeing
For both young people and adults who may feel alone, someone is always there. If you or someone you know is struggling, please reach out. For help and guidance visit or call:
- Samaritans phone: 116 123 (free 24-hour helpline)
- Mind phone: 0300 123 3393 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm)
- CALM phone: 0800 58 58 58 (daily, 5pm to midnight)
- PAPYRUS phone: HOPElineUK 0800 068 4141 (9am to midnight)
- YoungMinds phone: Parents’ helpline 0808 802 5544 (Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 4pm)
1. Children’s Society (n.d.) Mental Health Statistics. [Online] Available here
2. Bellini, B., Arruda, M., Cescut, A., Saulle, C., et al. (2013) Headache and comorbidity in children and adolescents. [Online] 14 (1), 79. Available from: doi:10.1186/1129-2377-14-79
3. Maleki, N., Becerra, L. & Borsook, D. (2012) Migraine: Maladaptive Brain Responses to Stress. [Online] 52 (Suppl 2), 102–106. Available from: doi:10.1111/j.1526-4610.2012.02241.x
4. Ligthart, L., Gerrits, M.M.J.G., Boomsma, D.I. & Penninx, B.W.J.H. (2013) Anxiety and depression are associated with migraine and pain in general: an investigation of the interrelationships. [Online] 14 (4), 363–370. Available from: doi:10.1016/j.jpain.2012.12.006
5 National Health Service (2020) Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2020: Wave 1 follow up to the 2017 survey. [Online] Available here