Another Kind of Shock: the Impact of Food Allergies on Mental Health

Valerio Esposito
6 min readJul 22, 2018


Food allergies can affect people in dangerous and unexpected ways. Yet, allergic children and parents still face scepticism and discrimination…

“My nine-year-old child looks like a strapping young lad. He is really sporty, he looks really happy,” Iris says. “You wouldn’t know by looking at him, you would never imagine all the nights I had to lie in bed, holding him in my arms, trying to comfort him as he sobbed.”

Iris Jones, 47, lives in Surrey with her family. She tells me that, on more than one occasion, she had to witness her son Freddie as he fought for his life after experiencing a reaction to peanuts.

Freddie Jones, 9, was diagnosed with anxiety following his first attack

“At age five, following his first attack, my son was diagnosed with panic attacks and anxiety. Do you know how much help we were offered? Zero. And they knew this was specifically related to his food challenge and his allergy.”

Iris explains that people often fail to recognise the role of food allergies in the emergence of mental health conditions in vulnerable subjects, despite studies showing that young adults with food allergies are twice as likely as their non-allergic peers to report symptoms of depression.

She set up a blog to tell her story, and immediately became role model for other mothers of food-allergic children: “Recently, a lady reached out for help. She told me how her child, who’s 12, is depressed, has anxiety and wants to die.

“Her GP told her there was nothing he could do. He said he could refer her to someone but with budget cuts they probably won’t see you. And that’s the answers we’re getting, as families.”

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According to AllergyUK, the UK has one of the highest rates of prevalence of allergic conditions, with 44 per cent of British adults suffering from at least one allergy. On a daily basis, patients struggle with the fear of anaphylactic reactions, with the number of hospital admissions for anaphylaxis increasing by 615 per cent in the 20 years to 2012.

Tamlin Conner is the lead author of the groundbreaking study

Food allergies affect three to six per cent of children in the developed world. Just in the UK, almost two per cent of people suffer from tree-nut allergies. The increasing incidence of these conditions and the importance of food in one’s life show the need to develop strategies to provide mental health aid to people with food allergies.

A recent study conducted at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has highlighted a link between personality traits and the way in which people handle their food allergies. The Big Five main personality traits are neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientious-ness. “People higher in openness to experience have the most challenges living with food allergies. This is one of the few chronic conditions where openness might be a handicap,” says Tamlin Conner, lead author of the study.

An insight into the mechanisms that regulate one’s ability to handle these challenges is therefore very important, as it might help “design ways to help people with food allergies better cope with the challenges on a day-to-day basis”, Dr Conner concludes.

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I meet Clotilde Tuccillo in a restaurant. She is cautious, always keeping a safe distance from other people and, most importantly, the food on their plates. She reaches for her pink purse and pulls out a plastic bag, thoroughly sealed, with two slices of homemade pizza wrapped in aluminium foil.

“Things are improving, rules are changing and restaurants have become more informed. But we’re not there yet and I don’t want to risk it, so I bring my food from home,” she tells me.

When she was 11, she discovered her allergy to a protein called LTP, contained in foods such as peanuts, peaches and corn.

“Surprisingly, the scepticism did not come from my friends or family, but from my first doctor. He said that there was nothing wrong with me. In a way, he almost accused me of making my allergies up.

“He went as far as to refuse to prescribe me an EpiPen, despite the allergic reactions I had in the past.”

She then went to a specialised allergy centre in Rome, where she received a clear diagnosis for her allergy to LTP. Twelve years since her diagnosis, she tells me that, as hard as it was, she feels lucky to have had such a supportive family and friends to help her keep a normal life.

“I am lucky to have found the strength to not let this affect my life. But I am not surprised that there are people out there who have a really hard time living with food allergies,” she concludes.

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Parents of children with food allergies are often seen as over-protective and responsible for increasing their children’s anxiety with their worries. Dr Herzog, a US-based psychologist who focuses on the emotional challenges of food allergies, explains how parent’s anxiety can sometimes get out of control:

“It’s already an anxiety-provoking situation, being in charge of your child’s health. If parents encounter a school or a camp or a community which is not aware and don’t really care, they have to ramp up their anxiety and sometimes it becomes hard to control.

“But most parents have a legitimate level of anxiety. If you knew that your child could die by eating something, wouldn’t you be anxious too?”

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“If people are struggling to understand the consequences, I show them a picture of Amy now. She is sitting in a wheelchair, unable to walk, talk or see. That’s what allergy has done to her,” Julie Martin says, as she recounts the tragic story of her niece.

Amy May Shead was left brain-damaged following an anaphylactic reaction

Amy May Shead, from Essex, used to work as a TV producer. In 2014, while on holiday in Hungary, she experienced an anaphylactic reaction that left her permanently brain-damaged.

Following the tragedy, Julie set up the Amy May Trust to raise funds for Amy and, most importantly, to educate people about the devastating consequences of food allergies and how to prevent them: “If people don’t understand they can’t deal with it or react appropriately. Our aim is to educate and that’s probably the only good thing that can come out of this horrific story.”

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A study published in the Pediatric Allergy and Immunology journal found that mothers of food-allergic children have increased anxiety and stress. I go back to Iris to ask her how her anxieties have affected her family life. She tells me of the struggles of being diagnosed with PTSD after almost losing Freddie twice to an anaphylactic reaction.

“I started seeing a therapist. And it was only when I could admit my fears, that I was terrified I would lose my son that I realised I had to get better,” Iris says.

“My biggest fear used to be that I would lose Freddie, that he would die. That’s not my biggest fear anymore. It’s the quality of his life that scares me. Should worst case scenario happen, I want to know that our child lived a full and happy life, chasing whatever dream he may have.”



Valerio Esposito

Multimedia Journalist. Script Assistant/News Runner at Sky News. Words in The Times and Sunday Times Travel Mag. Freelance at @BBC. Graduate @cityjournalism.