Welcome to my blog, which speaks to parents, professionals who work with children, and policy makers. Through stories from my behavioral pediatrics practice (with details changed to protect privacy) I will show how contemporary developmental science can be applied to support parents in their efforts to facilitate their children’s healthy emotional development. I will address factors that converge to obstruct such support. These include limited access to quality mental health care, influences of a powerful health insurance industry and intensive marketing efforts by the pharmaceutical industry.

Monday, December 30, 2013

ADHD, the aggressive child and the elephant in the room

(Three recent news items lead me to republish a post that predated my Boston.com days. The first is a new study showing that antipsychotics and stimulants can be used together in treatment of aggression associated with ADHD. The second is a recent New York Times article, The Selling of Attention Deficit Disorder, the third an article from today's New York Times: ADHD Experts Re-evaluate Study's Zeal for Drugs. I am hopeful that 2014 will be  a year of radical rethinking about what we now call "ADHD.")

In the Tony award winning play God of Carnage two couples meet in an elegant living room for an ostensibly civilized conversation about the aggressive act of one couple’s child against the other’s. The meeting soon degenerates to reveal the underbelly of conflict in the two marriages. Husband and wife hurl insults, precious items and even themselves with escalating rage. We see, as they attempt in vain to focus on the children’s behavior, the proverbial “elephant in the room.” 

It brought to mind another depiction of the nature of the elephant, presented by the pharmaceutical industry. A recent issue of The Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics features prominently a two page ad from Shire, makers of drugs commonly used for treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). A mother and her son sit at the desk of a doctor in a white coat. Behind them is a large elephant draped in a red blanket on which is printed the words, “resentful, defiant, angry.” The ad recommends that these symptoms, in addition to the more common symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity, should be addressed. This is the message: doctors should be treating these symptoms with medication.

From my vantage point of over 20 years of practicing pediatrics, where I sit on the floor, not in a white coat, and play with children, I believe that the play’s depiction of the nature of the elephant is much more accurate and meaningful than that of the pharmaceutical industry. In the play the elephant is the environment of rage and conflict in which the aggression occurs, while in the ad the elephant is the child’s symptom. Consider these two stories from my pediatric practice (with details changed to protect privacy.)

Everything was a battle with six year old Mark. Though I asked both parents to come to the visit, Mom came alone. She was furious.”Tell me what to do to make him listen.” We had a full hour visit, and as she began to relax, she shared a story of constant vicious fighting between herself and her husband. Mark, who had been playing calmly and quietly, took a marker and slowly and deliberately made a black smudge on the yellow wall. His mother was too distracted by her own distress to stop him. I said, “You cannot draw on the wall, but maybe you are upset about what we are talking about.” He came and sat on his mother’s lap. She reluctantly revealed her suspicion that his angry behavior was a reflection of the rage he experienced at home. She agreed to get help for her marriage, and Mark’s behavior gradually began to improve.

Jane’s parents became alarmed when her aggressive behavior began to spill over into school. Her third grade teacher told them that not only was she distracted and fidgety, but she seemed increasingly angry. At our second visit, Dad became tearful as he described his cruel and abusive father. He acknowledged being overwhelmed with rage at Jane when she didn’t listen. He yelled at her and threatened her. He longed for a positive role model to learn how to discipline her in a different way. He realized he needed help to address the traumas of his own childhood in order to be a more effective parent for Jane. 

If the elephant in the room is the child’s symptoms, as the drug companies would have us believe, then medication may be the solution. Children taking medication for ADHD often tell me that it makes them feel calm. The full responsibility for the problem then falls squarely on the child’s shoulders. 

For Mark and Jane, and countless children like them, the elephant in the room, however, is not the child’s symptoms. It is the environment of conflict in which the symptoms occur. If the family environment is the elephant, the treatment of the problem is not as simple as prescribing a pill. Families must acknowledge and address seemingly overwhelming problems. The parents’ relationship with each other, and each parent’s relationship with his or her own family of origin, often contributes significantly to this environment. 

In the supportive setting of my office, Mark and Jane’s parents were freed to think about their child’s perspective and experience. Rather than focusing on “what to do” they understood what their children might be feeling growing up in an environment of conflict and rage. This ability for parents to think about their child’s feelings has been shown, in extensive research at the intersection of developmental psychology, genetics and neuroscience, to facilitate a child’s development of the capacity to manage strong emotions and adapt in social situations. 

In another interesting link between this ad and God of Carnage, one of the fathers is an attorney representing a drug company. He speaks loudly on his cell phone, seemingly oblivious to the effect of his behavior on the other people in the room. His conversation reveals the profit motive of the drug company taking precedence over the well being of the patient. 

God of Carnage was written by Yasmina Reza, a French playwright. While the play itself is hugely entertaining as a witty farce about family life, an important message was in a brief scene at the very end. The telephone rings. The mother answers. It is her daughter, all upset about the loss of her pet hamster, which the father had “set free” one night because he was annoyed by the animal’s habits. Suddenly the mood of the play, which was lively with scintillating dialogue throughout, becomes serene as the mother speaks lovingly to her distraught daughter. Perhaps most of the audience was barely aware of the sudden mood change. Yet it lifted this delightful play into universal significance. Freeing herself from the preceding chaos, she calmly gives her full attention to her daughter’s experience.

The popularity of the play gives me hope that people are hungry for a different way to think about children and families than that offered by the pharmaceutical industry, which, with the money to place an attention getting ad, has a very loud voice. It is joined by the equally loud voice of the private health insurance industry, which supports the quick fix of medication over more time intensive interventions. In contrast, Mark, with his black smudge on my yellow wall, has a very small voice. His voice says “Please think about my feelings, not just my behavior.”

His voice is particularly critical now, as our country strives to create social policy and a health care system that values prevention and primary care. Parents, if they are supported and nurtured, know what is best for their children. We as a culture must demonstrate that we respect both the difficulty and the critical importance of being an effective parent. In this way we will be able to help children, not only by treating their symptoms, but giving an opportunity for deeply rewarding changes in the important relationships in their lives.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Why substituting "behavioral" health care for "mental" health care is wrong

A colleague of mine recently pointed out a study by the Center for Health Care Strategies (CHCS) about mental health care for children. Among their findings was this
  • Almost 50 percent of children enrolled in Medicaid who are prescribed psychotropic medications receive no identifiable behavioral health treatment.
This is a disturbing, though not surprising, statistic given that these medications are commonly prescribed by primary care clinicians. Children living in poverty often experience greater environmental stress and may have greater mental health care needs, and the study points to medicaid as a possible source for improved, and presumably preventive, care.
Children with significant behavioral health needs typically require an array of services to support their physical, intellectual, and emotional well-being. These children, however, are often served through fragmented systems, leading to inefficient care, costly utilization, and poor health outcomes. As a significant source of funding for children’s behavioral health care, Medicaid programs can advance fundamental improvements in care coordination and delivery for these vulnerable children.
This would certainly be a goal to work towards.

However, in reading about this study I was distracted by, and am struggling with as I write, the repeated reference to "behavioral health care" rather than "mental health care." This change in language is now common in our culture. It is significant and worrisome for two reasons.

First, it serves to perpetuate the stigma of mental illness. Implied in this word substitution is the idea that mental illness is something that should not be talked about.

Recently I came up against this stigma when giving a talk that included a discussion of the connection between "colic" and perinatal emotional complications such as anxiety and depression. An audience member, a mother of several grown children, spoke of resentment, that was still very much alive over 20 years later, that her friends and colleagues had been concerned about her mental well being when caring for her first very challenging child.

Severe sleep deprivation, feelings of isolation and low self esteem are an almost inevitable consequence of having a very fussy baby. The stigma associated with identifying this constellations of concerns as a "mental health problem" is part of the reason for inadequate identification and treatment of postpartum depression and anxiety.

Research has shown that when untreated, these problems can in turn lead to mental health problems in the developing child. If we could, as the saying goes "call a spade a spade," without having it be associated with blame and shame, there might be more hope for helping for these mothers, and for preventing the development of mental health problems in their children.

The second, and perhaps more worrisome issue related to the substitution of "behavioral" for "mental" is the idea that treatment involves controlling behavior, rather than understanding the meaning of behavior.  The ability to attribute motivations and intentions to behavior is a uniquely human quality. Extensive research, that I describe in my book Keeping Your Child in Mind has shown that children develop a healthy sense of self, the capacity for emotional regulation, flexible thinking, social engagement, and overall mental health, when the people who care for them think about and understand the meaning of their behavior. In contrast, there may be significant disturbances when there is an absence of such curiosity about a child.

This brings us full circle to the problem identified by the above study. By treating these children with psychiatric drugs with no other form of treatment, there is no room for curiosity or understanding. Children living in poverty, especially those in foster care, may have experienced significant early trauma and loss. The consequences of treating the behavior alone, in these and other circumstances can be significant. For example, a recent long-term follow up study of children diagnosed with "ADHD" treated with "behavior management" and medication showed that there was a five times higher risk of suicide, and 3% of adults at follow up were in prison.

The CHCS study calls for "expanding access to appropriate and effective behavioral health care." For it to be appropriate and effective, we need to call it mental health care. It needs first and foremost to allow for time and space for listening, for understanding the meaning of behavior.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Are iPad attachments for bouncy seats and potty seats a violation of infants' rights?

I was contemplating writing a blog post about the movement by the Boston-based advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood urging Fisher-Price to recall the baby bouncy seat with an attachment for insertion of an iPad. When I then received an email from a colleague with a link for another product- a potty seat with an attachment for an iPad- there was no going back. I decided not to include the link to that product so as not to inadvertently be a source of free advertising, but it is easy to find. 

In our technology driven culture, a position maintaining that we need to put on the brakes is a challenging one to take. The force of "progress" is so powerful that one runs the risk of seeming out-of-touch or old fashioned. But in these two products I believe we have come face-to-face with exploitation of children ( and their parents) or what I have described in a previous post as a "prejudice" against children. I would even go so far as to say it is a violation of infants' rights.

In today's society, where parents are often living in a state of high stress, with little support, either practical or emotional, the appeal of these products is very understandable. The allure of the screen is equally, if not more powerful for the infant. So from a marketing perspective, from a moneymaking perspective, it is a recipe for success. 

I became aware of the concept of infants' rights in my role as a board member of the Massachusetts chapter of the World Association of Infant Mental Health. A preliminary version the Declaration of Infants' Rights, a work in progress, reads:
The young child’s capacity to experience, regulate, and express emotions, form close and secure relationships, and explore the environment and learn are fundamental to mental as well as physical and developmental health throughout the life span.
So how do these products violate these rights? Lets start with toilet training. Recently I had the opportunity to write the parent guide for a new children's book, Potty Palooza. I identify the relational nature of toilet training:
Toilet training occurs in relationships. This includes a child’s relationship with his body, as well as his relationship with you. Toilet training will occur under the influence of a child’s inborn desire for mastery in relation to his body. A normal developmental movement toward separation and independence, together with your child’s wish to be like you and to please you, will move the process forward.
I do not know what will happen if you insert a screen between parent and child as part of this process (and sitting on the potty with a book is an entirely different experience.)  It is likely that the draw of the screen will interfere with a child's ability to read his body's natural signals.  The desire for treasured "screen time" will become the motivation for sitting on the potty, replacing his natural motivation to please his parents and to gain mastery over his body in a healthy way.  

Turning to the Ipad in the bouncy seat, the possible effects are more insidious and diffuse. Sitting in the bouncy seat in kitchen watching mom or dad prepare dinner is a time of great learning; a time of significant brain development. This learning occurs both through direct interactions with adults and older siblings, as well as through observation. The iPad interferes with both. As CCFC writes:

The Apptivity Seat is the ultimate electronic baby sitter. Because screens can be mesmerizing and babies are strapped down and “safely" restrained, it encourages parents to leave infants all alone with an iPad. To make matters worse, Fisher-Price is marketing the Apptivity Seat—and claiming it’s educational—for newborns. Parents are encouraged to download “early learning apps” that claim to “introduce baby to letters, numbers and more.” There’s no evidence that babies benefit from screen time and some evidence that it might be harmful. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages any screen time for children under two.
Extensive evidence at the interface of neuroscience and developmental psychology shows how the brain is wired in relationships, with the most rapid brain growth occurring in the first three years. Instead of making products that come between parent and infant, our focus needs to be on supporting early caregiver-infant relationships, in the form of such things as parental leave, quality childcare and screening for and treatment of postpartum depression.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Rising incidence of "ADHD" calls for radical rethinking

When the American Academy of Pediatrics changed the guidelines for ADHD to expand age of diagnosis to include children from age 4-18 (from 6-12), that the number of cases would rise was, by definition, inevitable. The recent survey by the CDC, published in the current issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, indicating that one in 10 children in the US carry a diagnosis of ADHD, confirms just that.

I felt re-energized and hopeful in ongoing efforts to, in my colleague's words "move the mountain of ADHD,"  when I received a request to speak at an international child psychiatry conference as part of a panel with a working title: "The ADHD Diagnosis: a Deconstruction from Developmental, Psychoanalytic, Infant Mental Health and Neuropsychiatric Perspectives."

 "Deconstruction" is a brilliant word, and captures well what I do in my clinical practice. Consider 4-year-old Max, whose parents brought him to my behavioral pediatrics practice to "see if he has ADHD." His preschool teacher had recommended the visit, suggesting that he might benefit from medication.  I asked his parents, Ann and Peter, if we might, acknowledging that Max did have symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity, take the time (we had an hour) to ask why he had these symptoms: to make sense of his behavior. While they had been hopeful that they would leave the visit with a prescription, reflecting Max's teacher's concern that he might "fall behind" without treatment, they were overjoyed to consider another approach.

Max had been adopted at age 3 months. Prior to this he had lived with his biological parents who were actively using drugs. They reportedly had a history of ADHD as did some biological siblings. Ann and Peter had been struggling in their marriage in the face of caring for this challenging child, and had recently separated. While Max had been a good sleeper, for the past several months he had been getting up multiple times a night and the whole family was chronically sleep deprived. Max had multiple sensory sensitivities. He cried with the sound of the vacuum cleaner; getting dressed was an ordeal because he could not find a pair of socks that was comfortable. He had difficulties with "personal space."

We had, in a sense, "deconstructed" the "symptom" to examine its various parts. We identified a genetic vulnerability for problems of attention, early neglect, ongoing family stress, sleep deprivation, and sensory processing challenges.

At age 4, there are multiple avenues of intervention. I usually start with sleep, as chronic sleep deprivation is inextricably linked with emotional and attentional dysregulation. Child-parent psychotherapy, where a clinician works with parents and child together,  has been shown to be effective in helping children develop capacities for emotional regulation, even in the face of early developmental trauma. A good occupational therapist, who addresses sensory processing challenges in the context of relationships, can help Max to use his body to manage his symptoms. Ann and Peter could examine the effects of their marital conflict on Max, and perhaps consider couples therapy.

The preliminary write up for the panel I refer to above speaks of what is now called "ADHD" as a valid symptom complex. But it proposes that
this terminology should not ever be used in our clinical thinking.  "ADHD," used as a primary diagnosis, has no etiologic significance, is conceptually and diagnostically distracting, leads to a paucity of thinking about a patient's early developmental history and trauma, and is therapeutically misleading.
 I hope that there will be a large scale movement to "deconstruct" the ADHD diagnosis. In essence deconstructing the diagnosis means eliminating the diagnosis.  Instead we would understand and treat the multiple parts that make up what is now called "ADHD." Such a process would result in  effective early intervention and prevention.

If I were to diagnose Max with ADHD and start him on stimulant medication, it would be in keeping with the current standard of care. Stimulants are powerful medications that have been shown in the short term to eliminate symptoms. But such an approach is simply a silencing of children. It would be a great disservice to  Max and his family.

Just as expanding the age range for diagnosis inevitably led to a rise in cases, "deconstructing" the diagnosis would lead to a significant drop in cases. The difference is that this change would reflect, not silencing of children, but rather improving access to meaningful help.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Buddhism, brain science, and parenting: towards an integration

In the past week I had two profound yet seemingly polar opposite conversations about how to promote healthy development.

The first was among fellows and faculty of the UMass Boston Infant Parent Mental Health Post-Graduate Certificate program (IPMH) about a new study, The Effect of Poverty on Brain Development, published in the current issue of JAMA pediatrics. Using brain imaging techniques, researchers showed that the children raised in poverty had smaller volumes of specific areas of the brain. They describe how the "caregiver" can "mediate" against the effects of poverty. The effects on the brain were less in the setting of "caregiver support." The group was addressing the ways in which this study fit with the abundance of new research in developmental psychology, neuroscience and genetics.

In conversation with the IPMH group, made up of many brilliant and often like- minded colleagues, who I affectionately refer to as "my peeps," I expressed concern that the exclusive focus on "brain science," where parents are referred to as "mediators," the emotion is excluded. It can become a way to distance from, or even leave out, the passion inherent in these profound love relationships.

Perhaps even more worrisome, I said, is that by making the discussion primarily about poverty, there is a risk of creating a kind of "us-them" mentality.  Certainly there are plenty of well-off families raising children in an environment of high stress and emotional neglect. Similar to the focus on "brain science," it becomes another way of distancing from the problem. 

I shared with the IPMH group my recognition that pointing to the value of listening, of creating an environment of respect for all parents and children, is seen by many as "soft." For example, I felt very alone when one pediatrician referred to my work, in a none-too-kindly tone as, "that baby whisperer stuff."

I knew I was not alone when the second conversation occurred a few days later at  a workshop at Austen Riggs entitled The Interplay of Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: Partners in Liberation. It was all about emotion and interconnectedness.

In a post a number of years ago, I wrote about receiving a letter from a reader who had been "awakened by the tradition of Zen Buddhism" and found my that my work, as described in my book Keeping Your Child in Mind ( see excerpt below), resonated with his experience.
Being understood by a person we love is one of our most powerful yearnings, for adults and children alike. The need for understanding is part of what makes us human. When our feelings are validated, we know that we’re not alone. For a young child, this understanding helps develop his mind and sense of himself. When the people who care for him can reflect back his experience, he learns to recognize and manage his emotions, think more clearly, and adapt to his complex social world. 
When families come to see me in my pediatrics practice for “behavior problems,” both parents and children feel estranged and out of control. They are disconnected, angry, and sad. I help them recognize each other. Meaningful change happens when we share these moments of reconnection. 
While I do not know very much about about Buddhism, I have been greatly influenced by psychoanalysts D.W. Winnicott and Peter Fonagy. I attended the workshop because I was curious to learn more about the relationship between Buddhism and psychoanalysis. In particular I was interested in the place of mourning, for I have increasingly come to recognize that meaningful change, and with it the joy of connection, occur most often when parents move through moments of profound sadness.

Workshop leader Joseph Bobrow spoke with a kind, gentle manner while conveying a sense of quiet authority that was calming and containing. He described the Buddhist notion of "re-authoring our suffering" of "representing our suffering in safe circumstances without shame" so that the story can "take its place in a hierarchy." He described "riding the waves of affect" to "transmute them in to the waves of life." He spoke of "transmuting sorrow" so that it does not "hijack" us." He spoke of how the therapist's "presence of mind," is what  calms, regulates and heals the patient.

When parents are flooded with stress and feeling overwhelmed by their child's behavior, I may ask them to slow down and describe in great detail a specific moment of disruption. This can be very difficult to do. Listening to Bobrow speak about meditation and Zen Buddhism, I heard many links to this process. Meditation can be about noticing how we become derailed by patterns of  thought and behavior. Similarly, by slowing things down, parents become aware of how their child's behavior provokes them, and how they may unintentionally attribute meaning to their child's behavior that is markedly different from the child's true intention.

If a parent recognizes in his response to his child's behavior a surge of rage that is linked to a memory of his own father slapping him across the face, the tears may start to flow. Now we have an opportunity to, as Bobrow said "use the suffering to turn straw in to gold." For in the face of this realization, of this "riding the wave of affect" this father can "re-author the suffering" and in doing so separate his own experience from that of his child. It is just this slowing down that helps him to see his child as himself. In turn the child, himself feeling recognized and understood, becomes calm.  This "meditative" process can be what underlies the moments of profound joy and connection between parent and child that follow.

My two experiences this week seem at first glance to be worlds apart.  I wonder if a piece Bobrow wrote on his Huffington Post blog following the Newtown shooting might point in the direction of integration.
We are helpless, we want it fixed, and become prone... to either-or thinking. But there is no silver bullet. Silver bullet, compartmentalized thinking is the problem. Cumulative trauma compromises the capacity for making connections, for holistic reflection. At it's extreme, the other becomes "not me," so I can eliminate him or her with impunity, Intellectually, it's like bubble living: psychology here, culture there, economics somewhere else. Climate? Fuhgetaboutit. We must grasp our fundamental interconnectedness, and with it the intimate and often unseen interplay of psychological and cultural forces and social and political action.
 I wonder if a third conversation, including both my IPMH colleagues and Bobrow, would lead to some real progress.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Authoritarian parenting vs. parenting with authority

Authoritarian parenting, as in "my way or the highway," and its opposite, permissive parenting with lack of limit setting, may be linked with difficulty with emotional regulation in children. In contrast, an "authoritative" parenting style is associated with an enhanced capacity for emotional regulation, flexible thinking and social competence. An authoritative parenting stance encompasses respect for and curiosity about a child, together with containment of intense feelings and limits on behavior.

Parental authority is something that in ideal circumstances comes naturally with the job. It is not something that needs to be learned in books from "experts." In fact our culture of  "advice" and "parent training" may unintentionally undermine that natural authority.

But what might cause a parent to lose that natural authority? Stress is far and away the most common culprit. That stress might be in part coming from the child himself, if, for example, he is a particularly "fussy" or "dysregulated" baby. It might come from the everyday challenges of managing a family and work in today's fast-paced culture, often without the support of extended family. It may come from more complex relational issues between parents, between siblings, between generations.

When I work with families of young children, my aim is to help parents reconnect with their natural authority. By offering space and time to listen to their story, including addressing the wide range of stresses in their lives, my hope is that together we will make sense of, or find meaning in, their child's behavior. Armed with this understanding, "what to do" usually follows naturally.

I have learned that it is important to be explicit about this approach. As I write on my website:

Parents often come to a pediatrician with expectation of advice and judgment. Our culture may support this expectation by our reliance on “behavior management” and increasingly on medication to treat “behavior problems” in children.
Some guidance about "what to do" may naturally enter in to the conversation. But I have found that premature "advice," without full understanding of the complexity of the situation, can often lead to frustration and failure. In contrast, when a parent has that "aha" moment of insight, the joy and pleasure that comes from recognition and reconnection, for both parent and child, can be exhilarating.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

What might redefining "term pregnancy" mean for parents and babies?

So far the discussion on the policy change by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) has focused on the implication for timing of delivery. While previously babies had been considered "term" at 37- 42 weeks, the new policy defines term as 39-40 weeks. Babies born at 37-38 weeks are considered "early term" and those born at 41-42 weeks "late term."

The main consequence of this policy change is an official recognition that babies at 37-38 weeks are still not optimally mature for delivery.  The main objective of the policy is to "expand efforts to prevent nonmedically indicated deliveries before 39 weeks gestation*." In other words, doctors should not electively induce delivery or perform c-sections before 39 weeks. An article in Time magazine on the subject refers to a recent study showing an increased incidence of medical complications in what are now officially "early term" deliveries.

But given my interest in the parent-baby relationship and its impact on healthy development after birth, I had a different take on the significance of this change. Many babies born at 37-38 weeks are not induced or delivered by c-section. For a range of reasons, most of the time not an identifiable one, a mother may spontaneously go in to labor at 37 weeks. And, in contrast to the babies in the above study, the vast majority of these babies do not end up in the neonatal intensive care unit. They are in the regular nursery for the typical 48 hour stay.

My hope is that the policy change will focus more attention on the vulnerabilities of these babies.  The important question is,  "What is the implication for these babies who are not at optimal states of maturity, yet are cared for along side the now "term" babies and treated by professionals as if they are no different?" I put this question to a colleague of mine who is a hospitalist in a major teaching hospital in Boston. Her full time job is to care for newborns and parents following delivery and up to discharge in the regular nursery.

Personally I think this more nuanced classification of who the "full-term" baby is will be important for the parents and other professional who are supporting and teaching the family in the early weeks of life - eg. nurses in the well nursery, lactation consultants and medical providers.  Currently, unless a baby is under 37 weeks, they are all seen as fairly similar in their capabilities with differences being attributed to temperament or "personality" rather than gestation maturity.
There's a continuum to observed physiological parameters that may not be appreciated or fully noticed when babies are lumped together as full-term between 37-42wks; these include degree of sleepiness, subtlety of feeding cues, amount of energy reserves, ability to regulate state changes, muscular tone to name a few.  All of these impact the newborns' behaviors; especially feeding which is a primary focus for parents with their newborns.

Understanding that their infant's capabilities are related very often to his/her gestational age will reassure parents about their own capabilities as they learn to observe/make sense of their new infant's behaviors/cues with a more informed/understanding eye and less self-blame when trying (or struggling) to feed or to calm or to awaken their newborn.  

As my colleague wisely points out, what it looks like in real life when a baby is not "optimally mature," is that the baby may be difficult to arouse,  cry more or in general be more challenging to care for. Much of a new parent's sense of competence comes from successfully feeding her baby. If the baby's challenges with feeding are not identified and linked to his early gestational age, a parent may experience feelings of frustration and failure. She may abandon breast feeding or slide in to depression as she struggles to meet the needs of her baby.

In previous posts, I have referred to a wonderful tool, the Newborn Behavioral Observation System, that offers the opportunity to identify a baby's unique strengths and vulnerabilities.  This video of a brief excerpt of the NBO with a 3-day-old infant shows the newborn's tremendous capacities for communication. The NBO offers the opportunity to look at these qualities in a systematic way.

My hope is that now that the ACOG has officially identified these "early term " babies as vulnerable, professionals who interact with these families will offer parents the opportunity to identify possible challenges and develop strategies to manage these challenges, which with care and attention will resolve in a short time as the baby matures.

*Gestational age refers to the number of weeks since a mother's last normal menstrual period.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Moving beyond the DSM paradigm of mental health care

A paradigm is a way of thinking about things. For the past 60 or so years, our thinking about mental health and illness has been dominated by what can be referred to as the "DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) paradigm." What this looks like in everyday practice is that when a child is referred to my behavioral pediatrics practice for say, anxiety, the questions that parents, referring doctors, and teachers ask is, "Does he have anxiety disorder?" followed by  "How to we manage his behavior?" and "Does he need medication?"

The DSM paradigm has been useful as a way of organizing our thinking. But it is important to recognize that these "disorders" of anxiety, depression, ADHD etc, are simply lists of symptoms that tend to go together. They do not correspond to any known biological processes in the way that, for example, diabetes is a result of lack of insulin.

When the DSM system was first created, we did not have the powerful health insurance and pharmaceutical industries that we have today. Because of the existence of these entities, we are currently in a position of being forced in to a very narrow view of mental health and illness.

The DSM system is a black and white paradigm with only the possibility of "normal" or "disordered."
According to the DSM paradigm, if the answer to the first question about my anxious patient is no, and there is no diagnosis, there is no insurance coverage, and so no help. But clearly such a family is struggling.

 We need a paradigm shift, defined as a fundamental change in approach and underlying assumptions. A new paradigm is needed that gives room for the complexity that we have learned from the abundance of research at the interface of developmental psychology, neuroscience and epigenetics.

The child above may have a strong family history of anxiety traits. He may have a strong genetic vulnerability for anxiety. However, if a parent who shares these traits was slapped across the face for her "difficult behavior" when she was a child, she may become so overwhelmed with stress in the face of her child's challenges that she is unable to help him to manage his anxiety. Marital conflict, perhaps exacerbated by the stress of a child who is struggling, can further add to the complexity. The environment in which this child grows and develops will determine the way in which his genetic vulnerability is expressed.

As I described in a previous post, the field of infant mental health offers such a paradigm. It is relational, developmental and founded in the basic principle that behavior has meaning. It gives us a way to organize our thinking about the problems of the family I describe above.  It offers a path to treatment, namely to support the efforts of the child's parents to recognize the complex meaning of his behavior. Once parents feel heard and understood, and have the opportunity to make sense of their child's behavior, they will be better able to help him manage his anxiety. They might involve him in physical activities or creative activities that help him to feel calm in his body. They might get help for their own relationship. They might work together with the child's teachers to strategize about how to support him in the school setting.

Thanks to my book, Keeping Your Child in Mind, I had the honor of being invited to give the Paul A. Dewald lecture this week in St Louis.  My book is about the idea that rather than jump  "what to do" about a child's behavior, it is important to simply "be" with that child,  to think about that child. As I prepared the talk I came to recognize that the same holds true for our whole system of mental health care.  Before we can plan "what to do" to apply the wealth of research I refer to above, we must first recognize that we need to "think" differently. We need move beyond the DSM paradigm and embrace a new paradigm; to facilitate a paradigm shift. An important first step is to name it as such.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Reflections on the government shutdown: why is health care so threatening?

 I may be putting myself out on a bit of a limb here, but the draw of the blog makes it hard to sit silent while our country heads towards disaster.

As I listen helplessly to a report on NPR  about our country being in the grips of an irrational game of chicken, I found myself being curious about the motivations of the tea party conservatives. Drawing a lesson from psychoanalyst Peter Fonagy, who identifies the ability to attribute motivations to behavior as a uniquely human characteristic, I wonder if taking a stance of curiosity rather than anger might be useful.

This led me to consider another psychoanalytic construct, namely that of transference.  The tea party hardliners refer to Obamacare as an invasion of privacy. This idea is grotesquely depicted in the commercial showing a creepy Uncle Sam invading a gynecologic exam. Before he enters, the patient,  a young woman, is being cared for by what appears to be a kind, motherly doctor.

The notion of transference describes how strong feelings from a past relationship, often with a parent, find there way in to a current relationship. This phenomenon can occur in relationships with spouses, children, co-workers, in addition to the setting where Freud originally identified it, namely in the patient-therapist relationship.

In the intimacy and privacy of the patient-doctor relationship, such as that between a young woman and her female gynecologist, these type of transference feelings naturally occur. That made me wonder if to those who made the commercial, Obamacare, as represented by Uncle Sam, in some way represents a third invading the primary caregiver-child relationship. If so, that might help explain the intransigent behavior of those who are unable to accept that Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act, is the law, and are willing to hold the country hostage rather than face that fact.

But Obamacare is not a threat to that intimate private relationship. In fact, if it works, and health care costs do go down, and insurance companies lose some of their power, it may in fact strengthen the relationship.  With increased emphasis on prevention, the healing power of the patient-doctor relationship might be brought in to better focus than under the current system, when doctors are forced to see more and more patients in less and less time.


Saturday, October 5, 2013

Mental illness and motherhood: lessons from Miriam Carey


We do not have medical records or diagnoses. The news is filled with speculation. What we do know is that Miriam Carey’s one-year-old daughter lost her mother, and that because the incident occurred in Washington D. C. in front of the White House, it is shining a spotlight on the subject of mental health and motherhood. And the message should be simple. Diagnoses don't matter. As part of our nation's health care system (another complex and fraught subject this week!) we must provide a safety net for mothers who are struggling emotionally in the weeks and months following the transition to motherhood.

Recently in my role as director of Newton-Wellesley Hospital’s Early Childhood Social Emotional Health program I have had the privilege of participating in a mother-baby group on a regular basis. During the 90 minute session, as these moms share feelings about such things as sleep deprivation, navigating new territory with a spouse, and going back to work, the babies cycle through sleep, alert interaction,  fussy periods, crying and feeding. These mothers, all of them doing this for the first time, intuitively guide their infants through multiple transitions while simultaneously engaging in meaningful conversation.

But it doesn’t always go well. Almost every session, there is a mother-baby pair who struggles. A baby may scream inconsolably, and his mother may leave, overwhelmed by helplessness and shame despite the reassurances from the other moms and group leaders.  A mother may break down in tears as she describes the way her own family is not supportive, and how alone she feels. The contrast between the easy attentiveness of the rest of the group, and the pain these mother-baby pairs are experiencing is striking. We expect motherhood to be a time of falling in love; a time of joy and bliss.  When it is not, the suffering can be profound.

There is nothing quite like the aloneness of mental health struggles in the setting of motherhood. I recall being startled by the story of  one mother in my behavioral pediatrics practice who had struggled with severe postpartum depression. She told me that she had experience relief when her father died when her daughter was about a year old. It was not that she didn’t love her father. But in sharing the grief with her mother and siblings, she no longer felt so terribly alone.

The Massachusetts Postpartum Depression Commission, led by Representative Ellen Story,  in collaboration with such organizations as MotherWoman and the Massachusetts Child Psychiatry Access Project, is working hard to provide a safety net for every mother-baby pair who is struggling in this way.

Through a combination of screening, support groups and a network of clinicians who are experienced in working with mothers and babies in the setting of perinatal emotional complications, the aim is to be able to identify and treat every one of these pairs.

This type of effort is also occurring on national level, through such organizations as the National Coalition of Maternal Mental Health. Perhaps the attention on the issue, due to the fact that an incident involving a car chase occurred on Capitol Hill, will give some meaning to Miriam Carey’s daughter’s loss.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Protecting a space for parenting in an age of expert advice

In my behavioral pediatrics practice, it never ceases to amaze me how, given the space and time, parents come around to making sense of their child's "difficult" behavior without my giving "advice" about "what to do." They may recognize that they share a trait with their child that has troubled them their whole life. They may become tearful, thinking of how that child represents a lost loved one.  There are countless variations. The process of telling the story, of finding the meaning in the behavior, is often itself the treatment. Once parents have these insights, "what to do" follows naturally. In contrast, if I give advice without a full understanding of the story, things may not go well.

Recently in working on a new book, I have had the pleasure of returning to a close look at the work of D. W. Winnicott, pediatrician turned psychoanalyst and a kind of British Dr. Spock. In my review of his writings on the subject of advice, I came across a wonderful piece from this past spring in The Guardian: Mothers on the naughty step: the growth of the parenting advice industry, that references Winnicott.
Winnicott abhorred the idea of giving advice. He believed that when mothers tried to do things by the book – or by the wireless: "They lose touch with their own ability to act without knowing exactly what is right and what is wrong." Yet today there are far more parenting advice books (each with their own regime to promote) than 30 years ago, and the radio and TV schedules are full of programmes such as Supernanny, which train a critical eye on what are generally called parents but most of us understand to be mothers. It sometimes seems it is mothers, rather than children, who are being dispatched to the naughty step...
Winnicott feared that focusing on pathological families rather than "the ordinary devoted mother and her baby" (the title of his most famous series) could excite anxiety in listeners without access to therapy. "I cannot tell you exactly what to do," he said, "but I can talk about what it all means." And so he did, extolling the role of the good enough mother – one who can be loved, hated and depended on – in enabling the baby to develop into a healthy, independent, adult. While many of today's parenting gurus focus on a child's deviant behaviour and the contribution of supposed misparenting, Winnicott tried to help mothers understand the significance of their child's behaviour, whether it was "cloth-sucking" or a display of jealousy, and the ways that they instinctively contained their child's anxieties.
The author refers to the British program "Supernanny," the "high priestess of behaviorist parenting."
Tracey Jensen, lecturer in media and cultural studies at Newcastle University, says Supernanny reverses Winnicott, offering up the spectacle of the "bad enough mother", usually working-class, who is shamed before she is transformed. Jensen watched the programme with a group of mothers, relieved that it was not their parenting practices being scrutinised, but those of someone else onto whom all their own worries and fears could be displaced. But they also shouted back at the programme, discomfited by the judgment and humiliation meted out to the mothers featured. Such series foster the very anxiety they claim to assuage, and substitute "training" for thinking and feeling.
This last phrase captures the essence of the issue. I shudder whenever I see the term "parent training."  But this phrase, as well as others such as "management of symptoms" or "parent education" are pervasive in our culture. These kinds of interventions may improve behavior in the short term. But if they substitute for "thinking and feeling" it is likely that symptoms will re-emerge at a later date, in a different form. 

When we talk about parents and children, we are talking about passionate love relationships. The feelings are deep, intense and sometimes painful. It makes sense that we might choose to avoid them. But this is not a long-term solution.  We would do well to instead make a space for them, starting from birth.

I borrowed this phrase "protecting a space" from my good friend Gale Pryor, who's wonderful book Nursing Mother, Working Mother was also heavily influenced by Winnicott. In such a space parents can connect with their natural intuition. It is in this space that we give room for healthy development of parent and child together.

Monday, September 23, 2013

In the age of DSM 5, what is normal?

In an interesting coincidence, a couple of weeks ago I received two emails on the same day asking me to write about books that are about the same subject. One is  Child Temperament: New Thinking About the Boundary Between Traits and Illness,  the second Back To Normal: Why Ordinary Childhood Behavior is Mistaken for ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The first was written by David Rettew, MD a child psychiatrist at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, where at the Vermont Center for Children, Youth, and Families ( VCCYF) they have an innovative family centered, strength-based approach to children's emotional and behavioral problems.

In a language that is based in science and research,  Rettew explores the overlap and interplay between the concepts of "temperament" and "psychopathology. He tackles the complex science of behavioral epigenetics- the impact of life experience on gene expression and subsequent behavior and development. He then describes how he integrates these ideas in to his care of children and families. For example, he describes how he might speak to a child patient:
I've heard a lot about you today and one of the things that I hear from you and your parents is that you are a very kind person who can really tune in to other people.  That is a wonderful quality that will serve you well in the future. At the same time, I also hear that you can get so concerned about what others think about you that you avoid things you like doing just so there is no chance you will feel embarrassed. Doctors sometimes use the term  social anxiety disorder to describe this situation, and if you are willing there are things we can do to help you feel more at ease in social situations.
He masterfully takes on very complex issues, including the way a child's behavior may provoke a parent's negative response.
A father of a temperamentally irritable boy who is prone to shout at the boy for  relatively minor infractions is certainly not relieved of responsibility for his behavior, but can be understood from a prespective that some of his suboptimal responses are evoked by the child's behavior, partially influenced by shared genes that cause both of them to escalate in negative ways.
The second book is organized around examples from the practice of the author Enrico Gnaulati, PhD, a clinical psychologist specializing in child and adolescent therapy. He examines our cultures rush to diagnose and medicate, and what he terms the "casualties of casual diagnosis." He writes:
In the past four decades we have gone from blaming parents for kids' problem behavior to blaming kids' brains....yet rarely can a child's behavior be explained exclusively in terms of child rearing or brain chemistry. In most cases, it is causes- plural, not singular- that explain why a child behaves the way he or she does. 
The underlying problem both authors address is embedded in the paradigm of mental health in which they practice.  Rettew seems to be trying to wrestle out of the paradigm in the last section where he describes an evaluation process that makes use of other tools besides DSM. However, the above example shows how the language of DSM permeates care, when albeit reluctantly, he uses the term "social anxiety disorder." This "disorder" may be in the DSM, but it is not a "real" disorder in the way, for example, diabetes is.

Earlier this year, the head of the National Institute for Mental Health tried to discredit DSM 5 by saying that they would not fund research based on the DSM system but rather aim to find the underlying "cause" in the realm of neuroscience and genetics. But as Gnaulati points out, we will never find the cause by just looking at the brain.

Gnaulati is similarly trying to find another way to think about this paradigm that offers oversimplified labels. But I am concerned that framing the issue as "normal" vs "disordered" is  misguided, and a result of the author being unable to see his way out of the DSM paradigm.

If a child and family are seeking help, then by definition the behavior is not "normal." Given the continued stigma associated with mental health problems, for a family to make the effort to call, make an appointment and actually show up, they are likely to be struggling in a significant way. Thus to call this "normal," even though the intention may be to be reassuring, is actually dismissive of the family's suffering. I wrestle with this dilemma every day in my clinical practice. Parents come to me and ask, "Is my child normal?"

I speak to this issue in a previous post: Answering the question: is something wrong with my child?
I refer to an article by Daphne Merkin on the question of whether depression is inherited:
The concept of "being attuned to your child's nature, especially when it differs from your own,"  is the essence of healthy parenting. She is describing a parent's recognition of what D. W, Winnicott termed the child's "true self." It involves recognizing a child as a person with thoughts and feelings that are his own. It is an excellent goal to work towards, though not always easy.   Issues that get in the way of recognizing the child's true self, including stresses in a parent's life and other relationships, may need to be addressed.
When viewed from this perspective, the question becomes not "is there something wrong with my child?" but rather "Who is this child, and how is he or she both alike and different from me?"
I wonder if Rettew and Gnaulati are so much a part of the prevailing paradigm that they do not recognize that what they are actually doing in their books is questioning the very paradigm in which they practice. If they were to step outside of the paradigm, they might, rather than asking the question "does a child have ADHD?" , asking the more salient question, "Is ADHD ( or autism or bipolar disorder or OCD for that matter) the way we as a culture use the term, a "real" thing, or is it an artificial construct defined by the DSM system and perpetuated by the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries?"

I believe that what both of these authors are actually doing is describing a new paradigm of mental health care that recognizes the relational nature of human development and offers opportunity for curiosity about the complex meaning of behavior. I'm calling them on it.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Investing in early childhood means investing in infants

Why is this so difficult for us to see? The United States has one of the most restrictive parental leave policies in the world, as my fellow blogger Claire McCarthy accurately described in a recent post. We fail to recognize the importance in investing in early relationships. The closest we seem to be able to get is age four. But the abundance of research at the interface of developmental psychology, neuroscience and genetics tells us that 4 years may be too late.

I wonder if the answer lies in child development researcher Ed Tronick's  still-face experiment. I remember well when I first learned of his research. I felt a kind of outrage, asking "how did he get this past the IRB( institutional review board for human subjects)?" In his well-known experiment, a mother plays with her infant in a usual way, then presents a still-face for a specified period of time, and then resumes normal interaction.

I now work closely with Dr. Tronick and well recognize the brilliance of his work. He sometimes remarks that it is his students in his Infant Parent Mental Health program at UMass Boston who seem to have the most initial outrage at seeing the experiment. I now understand that as a kind of deep empathy with the experience of both the mother and the baby. With that comes a passion for protecting this relationship, a passion that drives those of us who chose this field.

There is a great poignancy to recognizing the tremendous capacity of the newborn to communicate when we have a system that fails to support stressed early parent-child relationships. The Newborn Behavioral Observation System developed by T. Berry Brazelton and Kevin Nugent beautifully brings out these capacities.

But if a parent is stressed in the setting of such things as emotional distress, her own history of abuse, marital conflict and domestic violence, social isolation and poverty, being available to her infant in the way he needs is difficult. This is where the investment needs to be. Not 4 years, but 4 months, 4 days, 4 hours.

In Sunday's New York Times Nobel prize winning economist James Heckman has an op ed Lifelines for Poor Children where he again speaks to the need to invest in early childhood. He refers to Obama's policy proposal. However in the actual text of Obama's proposal there is relatively little for infants. The emphasis is on the four-year-old.

All we know about the science of early childhood tells us that the brain grows in relationships. The volume of the brain doubles in the first year. The brain makes millions of synaptic connections every minute. It is in infancy that the parts of the brain responsible for emotional regulation have the most rapid development.

 A startling article in the New York Times Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught? begins with a vignette from a Kindergarten classroom where a child says, "My Mom does not like me," When he describes how his mother screams at him every day, he is taught how to handle the situation in a calm way. Somehow the tables are turned and it is the child's responsibility to manage his out-of control mother. The answer is not to teach this child emotional regulation, but to help this parent-child pair to grow together in a healthy loving way. And this help needs to start in infancy.

This week I will again attend a meeting of Representative Ellen Story's postpartum depression commission at the State House. It is always an uplifting experience as leaders in the field grapple with the question of how best to support parents and young infants. The commission recognizes that this work occurs primarily in the realm of health care, which is where young infants and their parents can most reliably be found.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Did Electroconvulsive Therapy or Storytelling Cure Simon Winchester?


Joe Donahue, the brilliant host of WAMC's Roundtable recently interviewed Simon Winchester about his short e-book "The Man With the Electrified Brain. In the book Winchester describes his four-year experience as a young adult with an undiagnosed serious mental illness that was at the time apparently successfully treated with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT.) 

There is much speculation of the nature of the illness. Winchester himself, on discovering DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) IV many years later while writing The Professor and the Madman, diagnosed himself with a "dissociative disorder." A professor of psychiatry at Stonybrook who is a proponent of ECT, based on correspondence with Winchester,  has diagnosed him with "simple melancholia," an illness he recognizes is not in the DSM and attributes to "abnormal hormone functions."  A Psychology Today post entitled What Did Simon Winchester Really Have?" refers to "psychotic episodes."


In his introduction to the e-book Winchester explains his reasons for writing about this subject so many years later. He describes living with feelings of shame, and, following the death last year of both his parents, a desire to "come clean." He writes; 
My mother and father, tough old greatest-generation Britons who lived well on into their nineties, belonged to a time and class that disapproved mightily of any kind of mental infirmity...Stuff and nonsense, my father would bellow on hearing of my troubles. Damn tomfoolery was his only diagnosis, Pull yourself together his only prescription.
The answer to my question may be found at the end of Donahue's masterful interview. After covering the scope of Winchester's story, Donahue moves on to material that is most definitely not in the book. "Without getting overly psychological," sharing that he, like Winchester, had recently lost his parents, Donahue wonders about a wish to " fill in the blanks," about his history, and in particular his genetic history.

What follows is, in my opinion, the most fascinating and important part of the interview. Winchester tells of his elderly mother going with him to Buckingham Palace in 2006 when he became an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) He describes her getting tipsy on two glasses of sherry and telling "unbelievable stories about her life," stories of "espionage and affairs." Winchester tells of his father's history of being badly treated as a prisoner of war, and in the final weeks of his life, after suffering a stroke, beginning to open up about his own history. He speaks of his father's growing tolerance of talking about mental illness. Then, most poignantly, Winchester says, It was brimming, I could feel a sense that this is all going to break, and then he died."

After this comes an exchange where Winchester describes an uneasy sense that his illness may return, having been told by a number of people that the ECT, " didn't cure you."

I wonder if it is this very telling of the story, including his incomplete yet meaningful connection with his parents towards the end of their lives that will prove to be the cure.” This telling of stories as cure is well known within the discipline of psychoanalysis. I describe it in a previous post Childhood Trauma: Stories that Must Be Told:
French psychoanalysts Francoise Davoine and Jean-Max Gaudilliere have an adage on the cover of their book, History Beyond Trauma; "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one cannot stay silent." They argue that personal stories of war and societal trauma, if not told in words, emerge as symptoms, sometimes as mental illness, sometimes in subsequent generations. 
Of course I do not know if Winchester's family history had any relation to his illness. Yet I cant help but wonder, if this silence, this "British reserve" had a role to play, both in the illness and also in Winchester's chosen profession as a writer, or "storyteller." Perhaps it is his storytelling that was/is the cure.

We are currently in hot pursuit of the science of mental illness. This past Sunday, in an op ed in the New York Times, The New Science of the Mind,  Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel writes about our growing ability to understand the biological basis of psychiatric disorders.

Listening to Winchester's story motivates me to again point to the need to attend to the relational and historical context of being human in our quest to understand mental illness. If we focus exclusively on the "biology" without attending to the way the brain grows and changes in the context of relationships, we miss what a colleague referred to as the "poetry" of human nature. 

I have great respect for the complexity of the kidney. But the way the proximal and distal tubules transport ions is likely not related to, for example, the owner of those kidneys' relationship with his mother, or his father's survival of the Holocaust. But the function of his brain/mind most certainly is.

My hope is that what we will take away from Simon Winchester's story, thanks to Joe Donahue's  interview, is that in our pursuit of the science of mental illness we must find a way to make room for storytelling.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Gym as treatment for ADHD?

An article in the current issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry about the role of exercise in treatment of ADHD gives me hope that there is some movement in the direction of non-pharmacological treatment of problems of regulation of emotion, behavior, and attention. ( I do not use the term "ADHD" for as readers of my blog know, I believe that ADHD as defined by DSM is an oversimplified, artificial construct.)

However, the accompanying editorial entitled "Gym for the Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder Brain?" gives me concern that this idea represents yet another oversimplification. The editorial calls for "empiric support" from "well- designed studies." Our culture has a love of "evidence-based medicine."  I hope that before embarking on these studies, there is consideration given to what a colleague referred to as "medicine-based evidence," or research based on what we have learned from both clinical experience as well as other disciplines.

Primarily what we have learned is that its not just "exercise" or "gym," but a very specific use of the body to help the brain with the task of self-regulation. In fact, for a child who is overwhelmed by sensory input and easily dysregulated, as many of the children carrying the "ADHD" label are, traditional "gym" may be a disorganizing experience.  I described this concept in detail in a previous post, Emotional Regulation in Children: Using the Body to Help the Brain. It preceded my Boston.com blog so I have re-posted it below:
I recently heard a great story from a parent in my behavioral pediatrics practice. Their son was very active and had a hard time settling down to learn, and so, before an early morning tutoring session, a very resourceful teacher suggested he ride a scooter down the empty halls to the room where a group of kids with reading difficulties met. To make it fair, the teacher allowed all of the students in the group to ride scooters to class. The kids lay on their stomachs and used their arms to propel them down the long hall. Interestingly, not only this boy, but also all of the kids in the class began to do better!
One of the best weekends of the Infant-Parent Mental Health Post-Graduate Certificate Program that I have been attending and writing about over the past year, was with child psychiatrist Bruce Perry. He spoke of the importance of what he referred to as "rapid alternating movements' in achieving emotional regulation. Dr. Perry's ideas grew out of his frustration with the traditional model of psychiatric care, where children who have experienced significant trauma are expected to sit and talk with a therapist about their experience( and of course are also medicated.) His model of intervention is based on knowledge of brain development and is termed the "Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics.'
While it is not my intention to describe the model in detail, one of the main messages, which has relevance not only to traumatized children, is that in order to think, learn and process experience, one must first feel calm. A range of activities can achieve this calm. Dr. Perry does therapy sessions with very troubled children while going on walks. Horseback riding, martial arts, drumming and dance are other activities that can serve to achieve this kind of calm. A group of fellows from the program got to try out the theory. After a long, very stimulating (and also somewhat dysregulating) day of learning with Dr. Perry, we went ice-skating. Not only was it a lot of fun, but it worked wonders in helping us to process the experience.
Often when kids are struggling in school, teachers express concern that they are "over-scheduled." But if extracurricular activities are carefully planned and well thought out, they can be considered an essential part of treatment. It is best to have some kind of a calming activity interspersed with homework, tutoring or therapy. These can be tailored to a child's particular talents and interests. Many know the story that Michael Phelps struggled terribly with ADHD. Swimming can be a very regulating activity, but some kids with learning and behavior problems also have sensory processing difficulties and can't stand to have their head under water. Clearly swimming isn't the right choice for them.
The more children I see with a range of "behavior problems," the more I recognize the importance of using the body to help the brain. Occupational therapy for young children can accomplish this goal. But as children get older, and can learn to express their feelings, parents can help them identify what works for them. This same boy on the scooter, several years later, learned to recognize that when he was feeling overwhelmed, going down to the basement to play his drums helped him to regroup. This kind of awareness, both of mind and body, can serve kids well not only in childhood, but over the course of a lifetime as they learn to adapt to their particular vulnerabilities.
Central to this notion of using the body to help the brain is that movement take place in relationships. We know that children develop the capacity for emotional regulation in the context of relationships. Things like martial arts, horseback riding and swimming involve intimate relationships with teammates, coaches and instructors.

So I hope that before psychiatrists head down the road in search of "evidence" that "gym" is good for ADHD, there is sufficient thought and attention to what kind of physical activity, how and when it occurs, and if it occurs in the context of meaningful relationships.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Can we stem the rising tide of serious psychiatric illness in college?

Last week I "launched" my oldest off to college. As anticipated, it was an intense emotional experience full of joy, sadness, and many things in between. (I have to tip my hat to fellow Globe writer Beverly Beckham for her piece I was the sun, the kids were my planets that was very helpful. However, I might have written that my child was the sun, a burst of light in our household, and the experience of leaving her is like being temporarily knocked out of orbit as our family re-orients to life without her.)

The same week I received in the mail, in exchange for filling out a questionnaire about a study on diversion -use of ADHD medications by individuals for whom it was not prescribed- this pretty laminated poster of all the drugs currently available for treatment of ADHD.

Statistics indicate that serious mental health problems in the college community are growing at rapid rates. Some optimistically speculate that this is because of decreased stigma for getting care. But I wonder at the paradox of the parallel increase in availability of new psychiatric drugs- I counted 22 different formulations for ADHD medications on that poster- and the rise of serious mental health problems. Could it be that the drugs themselves are responsible for this increase? If the drugs were effective in childhood, shouldn't we see a significant decline in serious mental illness in college?

How would this work? Starting at a young age, rather than learning to manage stress in the context of supportive relationships, the symptoms are medicated away. The brain is actually wired in relationships, and in the absence of this kind of co-regulation of emotion, the areas of the brain responsible for emotional regulation do not develop properly. All forms of mental illness, including depression, anxiety and attention problems are essentially problems of emotional regulation. Then as the challenges of life increase in complexity, the medications often increase in strength and complexity. Children learn to be defined by their medication and are further estranged from a core sense of self. Add to that unknown side effects on the developing brain, and it is no wonder that there is a significant increase in serious mental illness by the time a child gets to college.

But what about that issue of decreased stigma? That also is likely true. At a superb talk given by a psychology professor at our child's orientation, we learned about the school's  "invisible safety net." It is made up of an elaborate interconnected system of students, faculty and mental health professionals to monitor the emotional well-being of the students. It is all about relationships and connection.

The very existence of this net reduces the stigma of emotional struggles. The fact that the school goes to the trouble to train such an elaborate system of care (sophomore advisors- or "SA's" the front line of this system, must apply in January of their freshman year, and they get several weeks of training prior to the start of the school year), conveys to both students and parents that it is normal and expected that people will struggle and need help.

I believe there is something to be learned from this "invisible safety net" model. If we as a country were to implement a model of preventive mental health care, we would have in place a net made up of primary care clinicians, early childhood educators, childcare workers, mental health care professionals, as well as others who come in contact with young children and families. There would be open and expected lines of communication. (At this college, if a parent calls with a concern about their child, within the hour there is a person making face-to-face contact with that student, even if it is just inviting them out for a slice of pizza- and that person is trained to recognize when it is necessary to call in a higher level of intervention.)

If such a net were there from infancy-including a system for identification and treatment of perinatal mental health problems- through adolescence, then maybe kids wouldn't need all those pretty little pills to take to college.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The doctor as drug


Psychoanalyst Michael Balint said: “If you ask questions, you get answers, nothing else.” In his work with primary care doctors in post World War II London, where many patients had symptoms related to complex psychological trauma, he supported efforts to use the “doctor as drug,” encouraging these physicians to be fully present to listen to their patients rather than asking questions guided by a need to make a diagnosis.

I thought about this idea of the "doctor as drug" when reading two recent articles in the New York Times on the same day. The first, A Dry Pipeline For Psychiatric Drugs, bemoaned the lack of development of new psychiatric drugs. 

This is news that I would cheer for, if only our system of health care allowed for doctors to use themselves as the drug. What is needed is value of time and space for listening. In such an environment the doctor, (or I should say clinician, as today the caregiver is often someone other than an MD) can let the story emerge rather than being guided by a need to make a diagnosis, which is now more often than not followed by prescribing of psychiatric medication. 

For example, a recent study identified an alarming rise in prescribing of atypical antipsychotics to young children. 
Data from the inspector general's five-state probe indicate that 482 children 3 and under were prescribed antipsychotics during the period in question, including 107 children 2 and under. Six were under a year old, including one listed as a month old. The records don't indicate the diagnoses involved.
The very availability of such powerful drugs, that can quickly suppress symptoms, may actually act in direct opposition to careful listening and meaningful change.

The second article , A Powerful Tool in the Doctor's Toolkit, addresses the issue of placebo effect. It refers to the work of Dr. Ted Kaptchuk, director of the center for placebo studies at Harvard:
Dr. Kaptchuk thinks of placebo effects as just one of the many things in the toolkit of medicine. It would never be a substitute for appropriate medical care, but it is something that can enhance medical care greatly. Wise doctors and nurses already do this. They’ve found, usually just by personal experience, that their “everything else” — respect, attention, comfort, empathy, touch — often does the lion’s share of medical care, no deception required. Sometimes the prescription is just the afterthought.
Under the influence of Big Pharma and the health insurance industry this issue has gotten turned on its head. The pill has become known as the treatment, and the relationship- the respectful, careful listening- has become the "everything else." Balint and Kaptchuk wisely recognize that it is actually the other way around.