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 29, 2014

Traumatized Kids Who Were Drugged Offer Lessons for Mental Health Care

Extensive use of psychiatric medication for children in foster care offers a striking example of childism,  or societal prejudice against children.  A powerful five part film “Drugging Our Kids  by Dai Sugano and Karen De Sa documents this issue in a thorough and dramatic way, using interviews with young adults who were in the foster care system, some from as early as 2 years of age. They were  labeled with every psychiatric diagnosis under the sun, when really what they were suffering from was trauma and loss. After experiencing physical, sexual and emotional abuse, they were on multiple psychiatric medications for many years. With the help of a range of individuals who saw through the haze of drug effects to who they really were, those interviewed for the documentary were able to get off all medications.   In a segment entitled “Treatment for a Broken Heart is Not Another Medication,” child psychiatrist David Arendondo says, “The first line treatment not another medication. It is to understand, to listen to the child, to ask, ‘what’s going on, why are you sad in this way?’”

The film offers an even-handed approach, acknowledging that psychiatric medication can help children access other form of therapy, and in certain circumstances be lifesaving. But, they point out, most often that is not the way these medications are used. Many kids in foster care are on multiple powerful medications as their primary treatment, with new ones added whenever there is an escalation in “problem behavior.” Arendondo points to the fact that we do not know the long-term effects of these medications on the developing brain. But at the very least, large quantities of medication “blunt the developmental process.”


Many clinicians interviewed for the documentary describe how psychiatric medications are used as  “chemical restraint” to control a child’s behavior. Another way to describe this phenomenon is a silencing of children. Angry, out-of-control behavior is a form of communication. It says, “ I have never learned to manage my feelings. I have never been held in a loving and safe relationship.” Medication silences that communication.

The film points to the critical role of relationships and creativity in healing. DAnthony, a child in the foster care system whose development took a different path in large part through a relationship with a volunteer,  describes the role of music in his life. “Music keeps me out of trouble. I take anger and make music.” Anna Johnson, a health policy analyst interviewed for the piece, speaks of the therapeutic value of forms of self-expression like music, dance and yoga. She describes “creativity as therapy” helping children to process trauma and connect with others who may have had similar experiences. DAnthony's words exemplify this idea; “Music is about being better, being somebody.” 
The children in these stories have experienced Trauma with a capital "T." However, many children who are similarly diagnosed with psychiatric illness and medicated with psychiatric drugs have trauma in their history.  The CDC sponsored ACES Study offers extensive evidence that a range adverse childhood experiences including not only frank abuse and neglect, but also parental mental illness,  separation and divorce, substance abuse, and domestic violence are highly associated with a range of negative outcomes in both physical and mental health. 

These cumulative experiences are a kind of trauma with a small "t," more ubiquitous than frank physical and sexual abuse.   When we diagnose and medicate, without offering time and space for listening to stories, for healing through human connection and creativity, we are doing something quite similar to what was done to these foster care children, but in a more subtle and pervasive way. 
There is urgency to the problem of medicating children in foster care.  Many of these kids are on large numbers and high doses of medication that are interfering with the course of their development. However, the mental health care system urgently needs to be fixed not only for these most vulnerable kids, but also for the huge numbers of kids experiencing trauma with a small "t." Time for listening, time for creativity, time for meaningful human connection needs to be not optional, not an extra, but rather the cornerstone of our mental health care system. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Dads and Postpartum Depression: A Reframing

Recently I worked with Susan, a new mom who was struggling terribly with feelings of depression. Her doctor had recommended medication, but she hesitated.  Susan's depression lifted when her husband Tom started attending a new dads group.

How can we make sense of this? In today's culture, where mothers are usually the primary caregivers, fathers are often relied upon to be breadwinner and caregiver, as well as primary and often sole source of emotional support for a mother.

A colleague of mine, Ed Shapiro, pointed out a potential vast disparity between a mother's and a father's experience of life with a new infant. A mother usually feels taken care of when her husband takes care of the baby. In contrast, a father, whose spouse may also be his sole source of emotional support, may feel alone and abandoned when a mother is- in a natural and healthy way- preoccupied with the baby.

In addition, many mothers may give mixed signals, asking for help while conveying, in both words and actions, that they know better how to read the baby's signals.

Putting all of these together with the helpless infant who requires care 24-7, and both parents may be physically in the same house but feeling terribly alone and disconnected. Depression, for both mother and father, is an understandable outcome.

A new dads group has the potential to address all of these issues. Similar to a moms group, dads can share with others who are having similar struggles. With the baby present, they have the opportunity, in a safe, supportive environment, to learn to read the baby's cues and connect with the baby.

When in turn, a father feels an increased sense of competence, he may be more available, both physically and emotionally.  A mother may feel less alone and isolated and be more available for both baby and spouse. A positive cycle of connection may be set in place.

In my previous post,  I offered a re-framing of postpartum depression in mothers, pointing to social isolation and unrealistic expectations that contribute to the experience. While the response of readers was in general positive, many readers reacted with the criticism that I was implying postpartum depression wasn't "real."

Having worked with many new mothers and fathers, I have no doubt that depression is real. What I am interested in is a deeper exploration of the cause of the depression.  Certainly in mothers, though not in fathers, hormonal changes may play a role. Feelings exist in the realm of the mind/brain. Medication may help to alleviate the symptoms.

But to discover the cause of the depression, and in doing so to intervene with effective treatment, we need to look beyond the individual to the social context. The way our society does and does not offer support and services to new families is intimately intertwined with the occurrence of postpartum depression in both mothers and fathers.

Perhaps a reframing, from a disease model, that proposes "there is something wrong with you and I will fix it" to a wellness, or resilience, model is in order. Listening and meaningful connection regulate our physiology. Being heard and understood promotes growth and healing.

Offering new parents a space to be heard, held and supported is integral to the treatment of postpartum depression, in both mothers and fathers. This may mean mobilizing of family and friends, individual therapy, dyadic therapy with parent and infant together, parent-baby groups, or some combination of these. Support around sleep, crying and feeding, as well as yoga, mindfulness and meditation may also have a role to play, Ideally these interventions occur in the first three months, when not only is the infant most helpless, but also the brain is rapidly growing.

The early weeks and months with a new baby should be a time of joy, bliss and love. When it is not, as a society we owe it to both parents and babies to see that it is. As another colleague Mara Acel-Green wisely pointed out, treatment of postpartum depression ( as well as anxiety and other perinatal complications) always works. Identifying underlying causes while thinking creatively about treatment is essential.

Susan, Tom and the new dads group offer a case in point.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Is Postpartum Depression Really Postpartum Neglect?

Postpartum depression may be a misnomer. A more accurate term might be postpartum neglect- not by mothers, but of mothers.

The human infant is uniquely helpless in the early weeks and months of life. His arms fly up over his head at random moments in a primitive “startle reflex.” His sleep patterns have no rhyme or reason. He eats and poops round the clock. Serving an evolutionary purpose, in part to achieve an upright bipedal posture, the human brain does 70% of its growth outside of the womb.  

For a new human parent, the young infant’s absolute dependence may translate to no sleep, no showers, no ability to do anything but care for the baby. Harvey Karp has referred to this time period as the 4th trimester. His popular Happiest Baby on the Block series offer advice about what to do for a range of behavior challenges in this time period.

But as pediatrician turned psychoanalyst D.W.Winnicott identified, a mother knows what to do. He referred to this kind of care as “primary maternal preoccupation” a preoccupation that is not only healthy but also highly adaptive. The problem lies in the fact that in contemporary culture new mothers do not themselves have a "holding environment" that supports caring for the baby in the way his immature nervous system requires.
  
In an equally important evolutionary adaptation, the human newborn is available from the earliest hours of life for connection and complex communication.  In a calm, quiet setting, at just a few hours of age a baby will turn to a mother’s voice, follow her face, make imitating movements with his mouth.  He makes himself available for falling in love.

These two evolutionary adaptations come together in the concept as described by J Ronald Lally of the “social womb.” The human infant, with his highly developed capacity for social interaction even from the first hours of birth:
turns this seeming weakness into strength. During this dependent period the human brain is very active, developing more rapidly than at any subsequent period of life. It is picking up clues as to how it should grow, learning what it needs to survive, how to relate to others, and how to fit in and function in various settings and situations.
However, when the expectation exists that a new mother will function as she did before the baby was born, offering this “social womb” may be very difficult. Faced with this expectation, many mothers feel very much alone. 

As Winnicott wisely observes, "It should be noted that mothers who have it in themselves to provide good-enough care can be enabled to do better by being cared for themselves in a way that acknowledges the essential nature of their task."

 In my behavioral pediatrics practice, whether a child is 2, 5, 10 or 17, mothers frequently describe feelings of deep loneliness in those earliest weeks and months that stand in stark contrast to the cultural expectation of joy and love.

Social isolation, anxiety, sadness, and marital stress color the experience of caring for a newborn who cried all the time, never slept, couldn’t breast-feed. Fussy infants became challenging toddlers. Tantrums, separation anxiety and family conflict define the preschool years. When these children enter the structured school system, problems of emotional regulation may lead to psychiatric diagnosis as defined by the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.)

As I describe in detail in my forthcoming book, The Silenced Child, primary prevention lies in caring for mother and infant as a unit. In the first 8-12 weeks, brain growth (the infant brain makes 700 connections per second) and with that healthy development, requires care by the mother, or mother figures, in the same way that the mother’s body held the baby in pregnancy- 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

There is an evolutionary purpose to what in this country was once termed "lying in." During a period of 3-4 weeks mothers were able to rest and connect with their baby while a group of women helped with household chores and offered emotional support.

Cultures around the world recognize the need for protecting the mother–baby pair in this way. Contemporary American society, with its unrealistic expectation of rapid return to pre-pregnancy functioning, is uniquely lacking in a culture of postpartum care.

We cannot go back in time to a period when extended family was available to provide a community of support. Nor will we be able or even want to return to a time when mothers stayed in bed for 3-4 weeks after childbirth. But some steps must be taken.

For just as we know that supporting mother-baby pairs leads to healthy development, we know that when early relationships suffer, the long-term consequences, for both mother and child, are significant and worrisome.

To optimize brain growth and development by providing a “social womb”, new families need to be held in the same way that the mother’s body holds the baby during pregnancy. Mother-baby groups, as offered by the Community Based Perinatal Support Model developed by MotherWoman, as well as increased paid parental leave and home visiting programs offer other forms of support, as does recognizing that physical recovery from childbirth does not happen overnight.

Perhaps the first and most important step in promoting healthy development lies in locating postpartum “illness” in its proper place- not in the mother, but in the way our society cares for mothers.