Welcome to my blog, which speaks to parents, professionals who work with children, and policy makers. I aim to show how contemporary developmental science points us on a path to effective prevention, intervention, and treatment, with the aim of promoting healthy development and wellbeing of all children and families.

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.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Should pediatrics and child psychiatry marry for the sake of the children?

There is an interesting exchange of letters in the current issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry between a prominent pediatrician and two psychiatrists regarding an article that recently appeared entitled "Is There a Child Psychiatrist in the House?" The pediatrician, William Carey, argues that pediatricians are well trained to manage such things as colic, sleep disturbances, toilet training and temper tantrums, perhaps more so than child psychiatrists. The authors of the original article reply that they are puzzled that Carey sees anything in the original article that threatens the role of the primary care clinician, and agree wholeheartedly with the proposed marriage.  Carey quotes a prominent British pediatrician, probably Winnicott, saying "many years ago" that "pediatrics and psychiatry have been living together long enough and its time we got married, if only for the sake of the children."

Here I would like to point out that Winnicott, a pediatrician turned psychoanalyst, practiced in a time before the explosion of psychiatric medications, and when psychoanalytic thought heavily influenced the practice of psychiatry. If that were still the case, I would agree with this marriage. However, in our current climate of mental health care, where the 15 minute "med check" is the most common type of visit, I think both fields would do well not to marry each other, but rather to marry the growing field of infant parent mental health.

I trained in both general and developmental and behavioral pediatrics, and work in a department of child psychiatry.  I know that for the most part neither discipline is exposed to the explosion of research and knowledge coming out of this new discipline, at the interface of neuroscience, genetics and developmental psychology. This knowledge has great bearing on preventive mental health care.

Here is a case in point. Prior to my own education in this new field, that came in part from my studies as a scholar with the Berkshire Psychoanalytic Institute and in part from a superb post-graduate training in infant parent mental health at U Mass Boston, I would not have known how to work effectively with mother-baby pairs in the setting of maternal mental illness.
Three-month-old Jenna sleeps peacefully in her mother’s lap. The cards seem stacked against her. Cara at 17 is struggling to finish high school. She has been diagnosed in the past with depression and anxiety, but currently is receiving no treatment. Her primary care doctor, who referred her to me, has been prescribing an anti-anxiety medication as a temporizing measure. Cara has been playing phone tag for over a month with the therapist at the community mental health center, whom she needs to see in order to get an appointment with a psychiatrist.

Cara is scheduled as my patient in my behavioral pediatric practice. I put anxiety as the diagnosis on the billing form. But in truth the aim of my work with this mother-infant pair is to protect her daughter’s developing brain from the well-documented ill effects of maternal mental illness on child development.
Cara talks in a rambling manner about a range of subjects- her older sister at 20 pregnant with her second child, but neglectful of the first, her father who abandoned the family when she was two. She is particularly focused on her difficult relationship with Jenna’s father, Ed. She tells of his drug use, his neediness and his difficulty accepting his role as father.
An infant’s brain makes as many as 1.8 million neural connections per second. The way in which these connections are formed is highly influenced by human relationships. As Cara responds to Jenna’s face and voice, is attuned with her rhythms and needs, both physical and emotional, she is literally growing her brain.
Important research has shown that when a mother can think about her baby’s mind and attribute meaning to his behavior, she helps him to develop a secure sense of himself and of his relationship with her. This security helps him to regulate himself in the face of difficult emotions. As he grows older he will have the capacity to think clearly and flexibly and manage himself in a complex social environment.
When I work with mother-baby pairs like Cara and Jenna, I focus on one simple thing. I listen to these mothers with the aim of helping them to reflect on their baby’s experience of the world and the meaning of their behavior. It never ceases to amaze me that with this singular focus, meaningful communication happens even in what appears to be chaotic and dismal circumstances.
As I listen to Cara’s rambling story, I know I need to help her start thinking about how all of this affects her relationship with Jenna. I use a technique I learned from leading researcher and clinician Peter Fonagy to help a person who is stuck in this kind of non-reflective thinking. I hold up my two hands. “Wait," I say. “I want you to help me understand how you think these problems with Ed connect with your relationship with Jenna.”
She pauses for a moment and then begins to cry. “When Jenna is so needy of me, it makes me think she’s just like her father, and I get so mad. Then I feel terrible for getting angry at her.” It’s a remarkable insight. But she isn’t done. She looks down at Jenna. “See how relaxed she is when I am calm. But when I get upset, she starts to cry.” Then she tells me of a time when she felt about to lose control, but somehow had managed to make Jenna laugh. “We were having a conversation,” she says joyfully, “even though she doesn’t say any words!”
After a year of visits like this every one to two months, despite having grown up in a quite chaotic environment, Jenna is a bright, curious well-regulated toddler. The research from infant-parent mental health clearly supports devoting this kind of time and attention early on to parent-child relationships as a model of preventive mental health care.

However, in order for a marriage between the two disciplines and infant-parent mental health to be successful, both need to divorce the current climate of health care where, under the influence of a powerful health insurance industry, there is no time for listening.