A New Child Psychiatry: A Vision of
Every day I hear these concerns from parents struggling to find effective help for their suffering child:
“Dr. Shannon, I have been given three different labels for my son and he still isn’t better.”
“Dr. Shannon, my daughter has been in therapy for two years and she is still suicidal; what can we do to help her?”
“Can you evaluate our child? Nothing seems to work for long. What are we doing wrong?”
“The medications have caused bad side effects. He is still out of control. Please help us.”
I have heard these refrains over and over again. I am sure that you know of a child like this (sad, hyper, nervous, violent, etc.) with a family in constant turmoil because of it. No matter what they try to do the situation continues to unravel. What can be done to help?
As I look to national statistics I know that this problem is widespread. The use of psychiatric medications is exploding. If current trends continue unabated, within a generation over one-half of all American kids will be on psychiatric medications. We now use over 80% of the world’s stimulant medication in the US. The number of prescriptions for anti-psychotic medications to children escalated five fold in the last ten years.
In spite of this rapid application of psychiatric medications to our children they are still suffering. A recent World Health Organization survey found that American children demonstrate the most psychiatric illness, use the most psychiatric medication and have the highest rates of stress related psychosomatic illness (headaches and stomachaches) of any developed nation. In fact, The rates of severe mental illness in American children seems to be exploding as well: A recent study found that rates of Pediatric Bipolar Disorder rose 40 fold in the last ten years! More meds and yet more mental illness.
Beyond this, we don’t even know if these meds are safe or effective. Most psychiatric medications have clearly inadequate proof that they are safe for long-term use in kids. The vast majority of these medications do not have an FDA indication approving their safe and effective use in young people. Only a few of these agents have reasonable scientific proof of effectiveness in pediatric populations. We are flying by the seat of our pants driven by desperation.
The trend is clear: we are using more medications, rates of illness are raising and more families are suffering. What we are doing is not working. Kids continue to suffer, parents are very frustrated and families remain in turmoil. The current system is broken. We must do something different.
I would like to share my innovative perspective on pediatric mental health with you. Bucking the trend in psychiatry, I offer engagement, empowerment and optimism for parents. My vision echoes the modern movement of science towards a systems model that emphasizes the whole child, interconnectedness and an ecological perspective.
In an ecological model of children’s mental health, we must acknowledge the obvious and powerful influence of such things as nutrition, school setting, family attitudes, individual learning style, toxic American culture, innate spirituality, the natural environment, parental health and social health upon each child. If we strive to understand the whole child and all of these interconnections, then we can free them of symptoms and labels by improving their world.
Sadly, psychiatry ignores most of the obvious issues in the child’s life and narrows the child to a biochemical problem that you as parents can’t solve. It has lost not only its soul but its common sense as well. I am not anti-medication. I prescribe them every day. However, if our understanding of the child is not more whole and inclusive, then medications become our only option as they have in modern psychiatry. The great psychologist, Abe Maslow, said, “When all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail.”
Let me share the story of a teenaged girl whom I treated using my approach to mental health. This story highlights the crucial value of proper nutrition and supplementation to solid mental health.
Allison came to see me a couple of years ago, just after her 17th birthday. The 3 preceding years had been terrible for her, beginning with a Tylenol overdose and psychiatric hospitalization at age 14. In the years since then, she had been in therapy constantly, but with three different therapists. She had also been prescribed seven different psychiatric medications.
The first psychiatrist she saw diagnosed bipolar disorder. Her first outpatient therapist, a child psychologist, thought she was depressed, with borderline traits. The most recent psychiatrist she saw diagnosed schizoaffective disorder after learning that she heard voices in her head. Allison and her mother, Jane, were very confused by these heavy-duty psychiatric labels.
Allison was rail thin. She strictly limited her intake of calories and fat, and I found out she had been starving her body this way since she was 13. As well as being so thin, Allison had severe mood swings, insomnia, the auditory hallucinations, and periodic bouts of severe depression that included occasional suicidal thoughts. When I met her, she was not on any medication. In fact, she had rebelled against being controlled in this way. Plus, the medications made her gain weight and made her feel drugged, which she hated.
Despite Allison’s very serious symptoms, I went straight for a more simple diagnosis. I told her I thought she was suffering from malnutrition, that her symptoms were the sign of a starved and over-stimulated brain. For now, I refused to label her as having any major psychiatric disorder at all.
My nutritional treatment plan for Allison focused on five key areas.
· A severe protein deficit
· A harmful lack of omega-3 fatty acids
· Caffeine consumption that was toxic
· A deficiency of magnesium
· Not enough calorie intake to provide sufficient energy
Allison and I worked together to create a more brain friendly diet with more omega-3 oils, more protein and less processed food. I also put her on a double dose of my standard supplement plan. In addition to the solid doses of magnesium, B-vitamins and essential fatty acids (all crucial to proper brain development and function), I added inositol, melatonin and a few other natural supplements individualized to her own biochemical needs.
After several months, Allison was like a different person. She came into my office beaming and relaxed. “I don’t have the same highs and lows, my concentration is better, and I don’t hear voices anymore. I don’t feel sluggish or stupid, and I still feel creative. My parents have noticed a huge difference; they say I’m not as irritable and grumpy as I used to be. The best part of all is that I’m starting to finally feel comfortable in my own skin.” Six months after this meeting, Allison left for college.
Allison is now off and running. She no longer needs me, and she no longer needs any kind of heavy psychiatric label pinning her down. Her high levels of intellectual and emotional intensity created a much higher than average need for certain brain nutrients. She merely had a high-octane brain trying to run on substandard fuel. Now that she’s fueling herself well, her brain is working like the exquisite machine it was designed to be.
Allison’s treatment is an example of the parent-empowering approach for children’s mental health issues that I present in my new book, Please Don't Label My Child: Break the Doctor-Diagnosis-Drug Cycle and Discover Safe, Effective Choices for Your Child's Emotional Health. In this groundbreaking book, I provide tools for parents to understand the unique needs of each child. My book helps parents avoid the need for labels and medications by offering clear strategies for prevention.
This is a book both for healthy kids and for kids with obvious issues. I address nutrition, school issues, family issues, our environment, everyday trauma, parent-child fit, key relationships and other key topics forgotten by most psychiatrists. This book will help parents keep their kids whole and healthy. Beyond that, my approach will help parents to uncover the magical potential that lies within each child.
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