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.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

To MA Gubernatorial Candidates on Mental Health: What About Children?

At last night's MSPP ( Massachusetts School for Professional Psychology) sponsored Gubernatorial Forum on Mental Health there was much talk among all of the candidates about how devoting resources to mental health care is a wise investment. But there was virtually not one mention of prevention in the form of children's mental health care. This was striking, as Nobel prize winning economist James Heckman has offered extensive evidence of how devoting resources to prevention in early childhood leads to decreased long-term costs of physical and mental health care.

Investing in early childhood also leads to decreased spending on prisons, a topic all of the candidates addressed in terms of decreasing the number of people in prison for non-violent crimes and first time drug offenses. They all correctly identified the high rate of mental illness in prison and the need to offer treatment, particularly substance abuse treatment.

The whole night I was thinking, "what about the children?" This might have been due to the format, and the fact that moderator Tom Ashbrook did not ask a single question about children.
I was struck by the contrast between this discussion and last week's American Academy of Pediatrics sponsored symposium on Child Health, Resilience and Toxic Stress.

All the best science of our time, in the form of research at the interface of neuroscience, genetics and developmental psychology, tells us that to invest in prevention means to invest in parents and children.

I was disappointed by Martha Coakley in a sense towing the NIMH party line, whose great shortcomings I describe in a previous post, by saying that mental illness is like any physical illness, such as diabetes. I am one hundred percent in favor of parity for mental health care, and decreasing the stigma of mental illness. But the only way to achieve this parity is to recognize that mental illness is not like diabetes.

Resilience and emotional wellbeing develop in the context of relationships. To both prevent and treat mental illness the focus of intervention needs to be on relationships. What makes us human is our historical and relational context. We need to value space and time to listen to each other.

The most important point of the evening, that was made in some form by all three democratic candidates, is that reimbursement for mental health care needs to increase significantly. When we place value, both cultural and monetary, on taking the time to listen, whether to parents of young children, teens struggling with substance abuse, or adults with a range of diagnostic labels, then we will be making meaningful steps not only towards mental health care parity, but also towards promotion of health and resilience.

Monday, June 23, 2014

ADHD at 4, Violent at 15: Are Lessons Learned?

When I write about lessons I have learned from my patients, I go to great lengths to protect their privacy by altering details and identifying information. However, as the Serpico family has so generously and bravely offered their story to the public in the New York Times, the details are available for all to see. And the story offers a very important lesson.

The focus of the article, Seeing Son's Violent Potential, But Finding Little Help or Hope is on the current situation- on how a well-insured, well-educated family is struggling to get help for their deeply troubled teenage son.

But the lesson comes early on, and is contained in this paragraph:
Lena and Robert Serpico knew something was not right before their son was in kindergarten. They had taken him and his younger brother in as foster children from a mother who used drugs, and they later adopted both. The older boy, whose name is not being published at the Serpicos’ request, was restless and impulsive from the beginning and got his first diagnosis at age 4: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
While the amount of time this boy lived with his biological mother is not stated, if he was the older of two brothers and they were placed in foster care together, it was at least nine months. The human infant is uniquely helpless in the early weeks and months of life. His brain develops the capacity for self-regulation when the people who care for him can be present and attuned. The brain undergoes its most rapid development in the first year. A caregiver who is using drugs will be impaired in her ability to offer this attunment, significantly impacting on that child's self-regulation capacity. Separation from a primary caregiver, no matter how impaired, is itself traumatic even for a very young child.

The good news is that the brain continues to grow and change rapidly in the first 5 years. There is ample opportunity to set things on a better path even in the face of early adversity. Several evidence based interventions, such as Child-Parent Psychotherapy, can help parents make sense of a child's behavior and so set development, at the level of brain structure and function, on a better path. When early childhood educators recognize the impact of early experience, as in the Head Start-Trauma Smart program, there is opportunity to support healthy development in the classroom.

But for this child, there is no indication of any significant intervention before age 4, despite the fact that he was "restless and impulsive from the beginning." There seems to be no link made between his early developmental experience and his difficulty with self-regulation. Though the article does not address this question, I wonder how much information his adoptive parents were given about the developmental effects of his early life experience. I wonder how much support they were given in the early years of foster care and then adoption.  Was there space and time to listen to them? By labeling his constellation of behaviors at age 4 as "ADHD" and prescribing medication, the path to finding meaning in his behavior was closed off.

Because stimulant medication is so effective at controlling behavior, his impulsively subsided in the elementary school years. But given his history, it is almost inevitable that without addressing the underlying cause for the behavioral and emotional dysregulation, with the onset of adolescence symptoms would resurface. While the short term goal of sitting still and paying attention in school was achieved, valuable time was lost.  His opportunity to communicate his need for help with self-regulation was silenced by medication.

He showed an affinity for guitar during those years of relative peace. Music,  martial arts, theater athletics, and a range of other activities, both through the activities themselves as well as the relationships formed, are other ways in which children can develop emotional, attentional and behavioral regulation.  With a diagnosis made and his symptoms effectively eliminated, motivation to pursue more creative, long lasting interventions, either in addition to or instead of medication, was likely not there.

What instead followed was a string of different diagnoses and medications, with what his parents describe as a terrifying downward spiral in mental health,  in parallel with a dramatic upward spiral of health care costs.

Virtually all of the comments on the article, over 800 as I write this, focus on the Serpico's struggles to get, and pay for, appropriate care for their teenage son. Certainly that is an important issue. Early intervention will be of no use to the Serpico family now. In fact, it might be quite painful to think of missed opportunities.

But the real value of this story lies in its cautionary nature. If it can be used to advocate for recognition of the impact of early development, and for investment in preventive intervention in the early years, their story could potentially help to save a lot of grief, suffering, and money.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Pediatric Leaders on Health and Resilience: Listen to Parents

"We need to actively engage parents before we jump to invest in pre-K for all," Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University wisely proclaimed yesterday at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Symposium on Child Health, Resilience and Toxic Stress in Washington, DC. Promoting a "two generation approach,"  symposium speakers recognized that not only the child, but the parent-child relationship, is the concern of the pediatrician.

One of the speakers addressed the problem of "uncompensated time." This phrase hit the nail on the head. Time and space is the treatment. People need to feel safe to be able talk about what is important.  This includes both the clinician and the parent. When the pediatrician feels stressed by a waiting room full of patients that the current system of care demands he must see, he is not able to be present with a parent in the way that careful listening requires.

It  is like a set of Russian dolls. The society values the clinician's time, offering the opportunity to listen to the parent, who listens to the child. And as many at the symposium recognized, it is not just pediatricians, but also child care workers, teachers, home visitors and others who have the opportunity to support stressed parents. All policy needs to be focused on protecting space and time to listen. Listening is not high tech. But it is this space and time, where parents feel safe and valued, that we have the opportunity to grow healthy brains and minds.

Pediatrician and journalist Perri Klass gave a beautiful talk about Reach Out and Read, a national program that distributes books to parents in pediatrician's offices. She spoke honestly about the growing realization that benefits were not from larger vocabulary or "school readiness." Rather it was the act of reading, the gentle sound of the parent's voice, fully in the moment with the child, that was responsible for positive results.

One audience member asked a wise question about giving a book to a mother who has herself not been read to, and so does not have a model for this kind of intimate interaction. Klass responded that this is true of any advice or guidance we give to a parent. Her response leads back to the notion that rather than giving information, or teaching skills, first we need to listen, to be curious about the experience of the person we are with.

My first book, Keeping Your Child in Mind, whose second chapter is "Listening to Parents, Strengthening the Secure Base"  translates the explosion of contemporary research that Shonkoff referred to in his presentation. The book shows what this approach looks like for a range of everyday parenting concerns from newborn to teenage years.

While the symposium was occurring, a relevant headline,  A Case Study in Maternal Mental Illness, on New York Times front page, told the tragic story of a mother's struggles with her belief that she had caused her baby harm. This conviction eventually led to her jump from a building with her infant strapped to her chest. While one cannot fully understand the treatment she received by reading a newspaper article, it appears that there were multiple interventions along the way, all of which treated the mother and baby separately. Many pediatricians reassured the mother that there was "nothing wrong." Psychiatrists diagnosed depression and prescribed medication.

Knowing the research on the value of treating parent and child together, I can't help but wonder if time with an experienced clinician who could sit on the floor with both parent and baby, might have offered the opportunity to make sense of her suffering and so set the pair on a different path. In the abundance of advice, reassurance and diagnosing of illness, was there time and space for listening?

For when parents, who may be stressed and overwhelmed, feel heard, recognized and understood, they are better able to do the same for their child. When  parents listen to their child, are fully present with their child, they offer the opportunity build resilience and the capacity to manage adversity. It is not about giving information, or even about teaching skills. It is about supporting parents' efforts to connect with their most competent self.

Central to this view is the notion of the good-enough mother, a phrase coined by pediatrician turned psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, and demonstrated in the contemporary research of developmental psychologist Ed Tronick. The good-enough mother is not perfect. But it is her very imperfection that drives development forward in a healthy way. Parents make mistakes. It is through these mistakes, and their subsequent recognition and repair, that children learn to manage the inevitable challenges of life.

It was an inspiring symposium, but we may be making this more complicated than it needs to be. All the best science tells us that our single aim should be to protect time and space for listening to parents, and so to children. This is the road to health and resilience.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Insel of NIMH Misses the Mark: Medication as Social Control

Tom Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH,) in his recent blog post Are Children Overmedicated? seems to suggest that perhaps more psychiatric medication is in order. Comparing mental illness in children to food allergies, he dismisses the "usual" explanations given for the increase prescribing of medication.  In his view these explanations are; blaming psychiatrists who are too busy to provide therapy, parents who are too busy to provide a stable home environment, drug companies for marketing their products, and schools for lack of recess.  Concluding that perhaps the explanation for increase in prescribing of psychiatric medication to children is a greater number of children with serious psychiatric illness,  he shows a lack of recognition of the complexity of the situation. 

When a recent New York Times article, that Insel makes reference to, reported on the rise in prescribing of psychiatric medication for toddlers diagnosed with ADHD, with a disproportionate number coming from families of poverty, one clinician remarked that if this is an attempt to medicate social and economic issues, then we have a huge problem. He was on to something.

In conversations with pediatricians (the main prescribers of these medications) and child psychiatrists on the front lines, I find many in a reactive stance. When people feel overwhelmed, they go in to survival mode, with their immediate aim just to get through the day.  They find themselves prescribing medication because they have no other options.

From many I have heard some variation of this statement:  "In light of my inability to address the family dynamics and social-economic circumstances, all I have available is medications to help with the child’s symptoms. I see patients who come from unstable environments, where parents are themselves stressed and overwhelmed. I recognized that a child's “difficult,” “impulsive,” “oppositional” behavior is most often a communication about family, social, and economic stressors that are making a child's family less competent at caring for him. However, I lack the resources or the tools to do anything about these overwhelming issues. I hate that feeling of impotence.  So I use the only tool I have, medication. When I can bear to think about it, I recognized that medication is just shutting off the child's efforts to tell me something – in effect silencing his voice- and that I have become a force for social control."

When that child is in a school setting, with a high student-teacher ratio, perhaps also with teachers who have little experience working with kids from stressed family backgrounds who are struggling with emotional regulation, the pressure to control the child’s behavior increases significantly. It is not simply that schools have reduced unstructured time (though this is a problem as well.) Medication again becomes an agent of social control. Rather than devote the resources to address the underlying issues, we can use the medication, so effective in the short term, to silence the children.

Insel also does not address contemporary research demonstrating the developmental and relational nature of emotional and behavioral problems in children, well known within the discipline of infant mental health. Referring to "biomarkers" he seems to have an idea that one day we may be able to test for mental illness in children with a blood test or a brain scan.   The importance of safe, secure primary caregiving relationships in healthy emotional development is supported by an abundance of research in neuroscience, genetics, and developmental psychology, One cannot treat emotional and behavioral problems in children by treating only the child.

As knowledge about early childhood mental health makes its way in to mainstream health care, there have been calls for universal screening. But if we are using medication as an agent of social control, we need to be very careful not to put the cart before the horse. 

If we do not first have a health care system, and an education system, that has time and space to listen, to support parents, to appreciate the complex interplay of biological vulnerability and environmental stress, to understand the meaning of a child's behavior, what may happen is that the huge numbers of children who screen positive will have no meaningful, relationship-based treatment available (and the medication/talk therapy dichotomy is another oversimplification- there are multiple evidence-based interventions that support parent-child relationships.)  This together with universal preschool has the potential, unless there is significant change, to result in massive numbers of young children silenced by psychiatric medication.

I wonder if Dr. Insel is himself feeling overwhelmed. Perhaps he realizes that the increase in children with emotional and behavioral challenges, as well as medicating of these children, is a symptom of an enormous social problem. That problem is our society's undervaluing of children and parents, our failure to devote resources to support healthy growth and development, described by Elizabeth Young Breuhl as childism, or prejudice against children. He has good reason to feel overwhelmed with this realization, as it makes his task as director of the NIMH exponentially larger. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Celebrating Fathers, Relationships, Being Present

In his beautifully illustrated children's book Magic Always Happens: My Daddy Loves Me; psychologist Neo Papaneophytou follows a father and son through the seemingly mundane events of the day. He shows the "magic in moments," or the value of simply being present in supporting a child's healthy growth and development. The book's introduction states:

To write “Magic Always Happens: My Daddy Loves Me!” the author drew from his experiences raising his own son. Seeing every day as a blessing, father and child find joy in all their daily activities, especially when their two-year-old therapy dog, Mya, joins in! While this father was born and raised on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus—a world away from his son’s upbringing in the New York City metropolitan area, the experience reflected in “Magic Always Happens: My Daddy Loves Me!” shows the impermeable bond between father and son spending quality time together, wherever in the world that may be. Such loving bonds are relevant to all dedicated fathers all around our global village!
Proceeds from sales of the book are going towards development of an international center for treatment of children with autism.

Neo is part of a community of colleagues who have all been educated in the latest developmental science as fellows in the U Mass Boston Infant Parent Post Graduate Certificate Program. Last week I had the pleasure of being reunited with the group (I graduated in 2011) at the conference I described in my previous post.

From conference speaker Stephen Porges I learned a new phrase, "connectedness as biological imperative." Listening, being present, is not just some "soft" extraneous concept (one pediatrician referred to it in a less than kind tone as "that baby whisperer stuff, " making me wonder if she herself did not feel heard.) Porges' work echoes John Bowlby, whose recognition of the central role of attachment relationships in survival drew from Charles Darwin's theories of evolution. Porges demonstrates how connectedness is necessary for regulation of physiologic and behavioral states. In other words, the way we learn to manage ourselves in a complex social world is through connectedness, through relationships. This is first learned in our primary caregiving relationships in our earliest years, and continues to be developed and supported in relationships throughout our lives.

In describing his book, Papaneophytou wisely identifies the need for a village to raise a child. Increasingly we offer parents "behavior management," "parent training," or even medication to address challenges in raising children.  The best science of our time tells us we should instead focus on protecting space and time for parents, for children and for each other. We need that space and time for listening, for "being with," for supporting that connectedness that is central to our very survival.