psychiatry

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Marathon Reflection: How To Raise Secure Children In An Insecure World?

Police clear the area at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon as medical workers help injured following the explosions. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Police clear the area at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon as medical workers help the injured following the explosions. (Charles Krupa/AP)

One year ago, on the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, Dr. Gene Beresin shared advice on how to talk to children about the frightening event. Here, a year later, he and Dr. Paula Rauch, a fellow professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, help parents draw broader lessons about how best to help children face such stresses and even grow through them.

By Drs. Paula K. Rauch and Gene Beresin
Guest contributors

For the most affected families, April 15th, 2013 was a life-changing event. For many in our community it produced a lesser, but still significant, set of challenges, and for some facing other family adversity or chronic stresses, it may have seemed like a minor event with little personal impact.

Regardless of how personal or significant the marathon bombing and its aftermath were for you, every one of us will face life challenges within our families and in the larger community. How can we face stressful experiences in ways that support our children’s resilience, and help them grow through those challenges? How do we raise secure, confident children in an uncertain world?

Start small

Children develop confidence and competence by facing new experiences, difficult transitions and unavoidable frustrations throughout childhood. Life continually presents a child with developmental challenges, such as falling asleep alone in a crib, saying goodbye at a new preschool, facing the first day of school with a sea of unfamiliar faces, dealing with a relentlessly annoying peer, being cut from the travel team, and, for some teens, making this month’s tough decisions about college.

It is often tempting as a parent to want to smooth over these challenges, alleviate uncertainty and facilitate a child’s comfort and success. But it is important to recognize that these age-appropriate frustrations and disappointments are essential for building lifelong coping skills. Children need to learn how to manage new and difficult situations, and while parents cannot solve the challenges for a child, they can provide appreciation and emotional support for that child’s efforts. Living through a multitude of such experiences makes the normal feelings of distress more familiar and less frightening.

Face serious challenges together Continue reading

The OCD In Us All: Study Finds Almost Everyone Has Intrusive Thoughts

Some people with OCD wash their hands compulsively. (Wikimedia Commons)

Some people with OCD wash their hands compulsively. (Wikimedia Commons)

Confession: Every time I flush the toilet, I have to be out of the bathroom before the last of the water goes down the pipe. If I’m not — well, I don’t know. Something bad will happen. And when I’m choosing a spoon for breakfast — only breakfast, not later meals — sometimes I’m seized by the feeling that I’ve chosen the wrong spoon. If I use it, I doom the day. I put it back into the silverware tray and choose another.

I knew that I was far from alone — that Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder-type thoughts and behaviors are extremely widespread. But not this widespread. A study just out in the Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders suggests to me that if you don’t have any of these thoughts and behaviors, you’re the weird one.

The study looked at 777 university students in 13 countries, including Canada, Israel, Iran and the United States. From the press release:

International study finds that 94 percent of people experience unwanted, intrusive thoughts

Montreal, April 8, 2014 — People who check whether their hands are clean or imagine their house might be on fire are not alone. New research from Concordia University and 15 other universities worldwide shows that 94 per cent of people experience unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images and/or impulses. Continue reading

In Defense Of 12 Steps: What Science Really Tells Us About Addiction

The chips AA members receive to mark sobriety. (Randy Heinitz/Flickr)

The chips AA members receive to mark sobriety. (Randy Heinitz/Flickr)

Last week, Radio Boston featured an interview with Dr. Lance Dodes, author of “The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry.” Here, two Harvard Medical School professors of psychiatry respond, arguing that Dr. Dodes misrepresents the evidence and that 12-step programs have among the strongest scientific underpinnings of any addiction treatment.

By John F. Kelly and Gene Beresin
Guest Contributors

In a recent WBUR interview, Dr. Lance Dodes discussed his new book, which attempts to “debunk” the science related to the effectiveness of 12-step mutual-help programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, as well as 12-step professional treatment. He claims that these approaches are almost completely ineffective and even harmful in treating substance use disorders.

What he claims has very serious implications because hundreds of Americans are dying every day as a result of addiction. If the science really does demonstrate that the millions of people who attend AA and similar 12-step organizations each week are really deluding themselves as to any benefit they may be getting, then this surely should be stated loud and clear.

In fact, however, rather than support Dr. Dodes’ position, the science actually supports the exact opposite: AA and 12-step treatments are some of the most effective and cost-effective treatment approaches for addiction.

In his book, Dr. Dodes commits the same misguided offenses he condemns. His critique of the science behind treatment of addiction is deeply flawed, and ironically, his own psychoanalytic model of an approach to solve the “problem of addiction” has no independent scientific proof of effectiveness, particularly in comparison to other methods of treatment.

Below, we address some of the specific pronouncements he made on Radio Boston and in his book in order to convey what well-conducted science actually tells us about how to treat addiction.

What he says: 12-Step programs do not work, are not backed by science, and are probably harmful.

The evidence is overwhelming that AA, and treatments that facilitate patients’ engagement with groups like AA, are among the most effective and best studied treatments for helping change addictive behavior. Continue reading

What Your Shrink Thinks? Pilot Study Opens Psych Records To Patients

(Life Mental Health/Flickr via Compfight)

(Life Mental Health/Flickr via Compfight)

Here’s how far we’ve come beyond the old stereotype of the inscrutable psychiatrist who refuses to do anything more than nod and hum. If you’re a patient in a pilot program just now getting under way at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, you’ll soon have a whole new window into your psychiatrist’s thoughts: the mental health notes in your own medical record.

Patient access to personal medical records is a growing trend, but the pilot takes it a pioneering next step, into mental health records that are often kept closed to patients. The program’s rationale — the expectation that the tactic will lead to better care — is laid out in “Let’s Show Patients Their Mental Health Records,” an article in this week’s Journal of the American Medical Association.

I spoke with its first author, Dr. Michael Kahn, a psychiatrist at Beth Israel Deaconess. Our conversation, lightly edited:

CG: Here’s my colleague’s response to the idea of patients reading their psychiatrists’ notes: ‘Omigod, that’s terrifying! Do you really want to know what they think of you, especially if you already have issues?’ How would you respond?

MK: My main response would be that ‘what they think of you’ might actually be a great relief. Many patients are quite frightened that the doctor ‘will think I’m crazy,’ and the meaning of that varies from patient to patient. Mostly, those patients are not out of touch with reality; they’re just overwhelmed, and they’re often very reluctant to ask their doctor about it because they’re afraid their doctor will say, ‘Yes, you are crazy.’

So when they read in the note that “The patient is struggling with anxiety or depression, and should get better with this treatment,” that’s often a great relief to them, because they often see they’re not as impaired or deficient or defective as they feared.

I imagine the response from many psychiatrists would also be, ‘Omigod, that’s terrifying.’ You write in JAMA that this ‘feels like entering a minefield, triggering clinicians’ worst fears about sharing notes with patients.’ And you mention specific fears — how will a patient with a personality disorder react upon learning of that diagnosis? What if patients are outraged by the terms used? How do you respond to doctors’ fears?

The first thing is to recognize that it’s a totally natural, understandable and honest fear. I think we all learn in our professional development to use these terms — you might call them jargon — that are often but not always accurate, and often but not always have more pejorative connotations.

I think clinicians know this and are concerned that if patients read, for example, that they have Borderline Personality Disorder, then they will feel insulted, shocked, demeaned. I think this is a totally understandable and reasonable anxiety on the clinician’s part, but I think for many patients — and I’ve seen this many times — if it’s introduced to them in a tactful way, they can get the message that “The reason your life is in such turmoil is not because you’re a bad person but because you have this thing we call Borderline Personality Disorder that has these features.” And patients often say, ‘Oh my God, that’s me!’ and that’s actually a relief; they feel less alone and stigmatized.

So overall, the expectation is that patients being able to see these notes would far more often be helpful than harmful? Continue reading

Study Ignites Debate Over Non-Drug Treatment For Schizophrenia

Antipsychotic medications (Wikimedia Commons)

Antipsychotic medications (Wikimedia Commons)

By Alexandra Morris
CommonHealth intern

Antipsychotic drugs are typically the first-line treatment for the roughly one percent of people who have schizophrenia — often in conjunction with psychotherapy. But for patients who are not helped by the drugs or cannot tolerate their side effects, what’s left?

Last month, the Lancet published a study looking at the effects of cognitive therapy on patients with schizophrenia who refused to take medication – and prompted a heated debate within the mental health community.

Cognitive therapy involves one-on-one meetings between a patient and a therapist to discuss ways to change thinking and behavior in response to their symptoms.

Patients in the study were randomly assigned to receive either treatment as usual — ranging from no treatment at all to psychosocial support and other methods — or treatment as usual plus cognitive therapy. The researchers found that by the end of the study, the patients who received cognitive therapy had reduced psychiatric symptoms as compared to those who did not receive cognitive therapy.

Sounds reasonable, no? But initial media coverage included headlines claiming that cognitive therapy was an effective alternative to antipsychotic treatment. The Guardian posted “At last, a promising alternative to antipsychotics for schizophrenia,” and Science magazine wrote, “Schizophrenia: Time to flush the meds?” BBC News reportedly posted a headline “Schizophrenia: Talking therapies ‘effective as drugs.’”

Shortly after the study hit the press, bloggers were off and running (from PLOS to The Mental Elf), highlighting the limitations in the study design, such as the small sample size of 74 patients and the fact that nearly a third of these patients dropped out of the study partway through. They urged readers not to generalize the effect of cognitive therapy on schizophrenia based on limited evidence.

In fact, cognitive therapy was never compared to antipsychotics in the study. Some patients were even prescribed antipsychotics during the trial as part of their routine treatment. Several of the media reports also failed to mention an important caveat – that the trial was conducted in a specific patient population: those with mild to moderate psychiatric symptoms, as compared to those with severe illness who require hospitalization. The findings therefore cannot be extrapolated to all patients suffering from schizophrenia.

Lead study author Dr. Tony Morrison of the University of Manchester attested to the high drop-out rate. Continue reading

Must-Read: New Yorker Piece On Newtown Shooter’s Father

Connecticut State Police lead children from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, on Dec. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Newtown Bee, Shannon Hicks)

Connecticut State Police lead children from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, on Dec. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Newtown Bee, Shannon Hicks)

Warning: Do not start reading the gifted writer Andrew Solomon’s New Yorker piece on Peter Lanza, father of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter Adam Lanza, if you have anything urgent to do.

Once you start, you won’t be able to stop — at first, because you’re hoping for some kind of answer to the unanswerable. Then because you find yourself feeling such pity for this man who could truly have no idea that his son would morph into a monster. (“I want people to be afraid of the fact that this could happen to them,” Peter Lanza tells Andrew Solomon.) And ultimately because it offers the first truly detailed, even intimate look into the Lanza family’s life, and you can’t stop hunting for clues to the ultimate evil, even though you know you’re doomed to failure.

For me, the biggest revelation was that it was not Peter Lanza who chose estrangement from his son. Soon after the December, 2012 shooting, when it was reported that Adam Lanza hadn’t seen his father for two years, I jumped to the conclusion that father had abandoned son, perhaps fueling rage at that abandonment.

But Solomon’s sensitive narration describes the distance as coming only from the son, who, through adolescence, seemed to sink ever further from weirdness — Asperger’s, social isolation — into deep distress and pathology. Adam started refusing to see his father, and stopped returning his emails, and neither parent seemed willing to force the issue. Solomon writes:

I wondered how Peter had felt through this period. “Sad,” he said. “I was hurt. I never expected that I would never talk to him again. I thought it was a matter of when.” He asked, “How much do you accommodate the demands and how much do you not? Nancy tended to, as did I.” Peter added, “But I think he saw that he could control her more than he could control me.” 

And the closest thing I found to a takehome message:

All parenting involves choosing between the day (why have another argument at dinner?) and the years (the child must learn to eat vegetables). Nancy’s error seems to have been that she always focussed on the day, in a ceaseless quest to keep peace in the home she shared with the hypersensitive, controlling, increasingly hostile stranger who was her son. She thought that she could keep the years at bay by making each day as good as possible, but her willingness to indulge his isolation may well have exacerbated the problems it was intended to ameliorate.

Readers, your own reactions?

Study: Primary Care May Be Path To More Effective Suicide Prevention

The unanswerable question, “What If?” often dominates the talk when it comes to illness. What if the tumor had been caught earlier; what if the child’s ache taken more seriously? When it comes to suicide, the agonizing “What Ifs?” can run rampant.

Recently, following three suicide deaths by high school students in Newton, Mass. there has been much talk about what, if anything, might have been done to prevent these acts.

A new national study offers no easy answers — indeed, many people who die by suicide do so without any prior mental health diagnosis, researchers report. But this new research does suggest there may be opportunities — through primary care doctors, and other specialists, for instance — to more accurately identify people at risk for suicide, and perhaps intervene before it’s too late.

The new federally-funded study — based on a longitudinal review of more than 5,800 people who died by suicide from 2000 to 2010 — found that nearly all of these individuals (83 percent) saw a doctor or received some kind of health care in the year prior to their death, but half of those individuals did not have a mental health diagnosis. Moreover, researchers report: “Only 24% had a mental health diagnosis in the 4-week period prior to death.”

Also, strikingly, one in every five people who died by suicide “made a health care visit in the week before their death,” says the paper’s lead author Brian K. Ahmedani, Ph.D., assistant scientist in the Center for Health Policy and Health Services Research at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, who speaks about the work in an accompanying video.

The study, published online in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, concludes that: “Greater efforts should be made to assess mental health and suicide risk. Most visits occur in primary care or medical specialty settings, and suicide prevention in these clinics would likely reach the largest number of individuals.”

Of course, that’s easier said than done. Anyone familiar with a typical primary care visit knows it can be, well, a bit rushed — not quite the perfect venue for dwelling on complicated emotional issues that may be difficult to articulate. Unless specific psychiatric symptoms are raised, they are often not part of routine care, says Massachusetts General Hospital psychiatrist Steven C. Schlozman, Continue reading

As Newton Grapples With Teen Suicides, A Quick Primer On Resilience

As Newton grapples with its third suicide by a teenager this school year, some of the discussion revolves around resilience. WBUR’s Martha Bebinger this week quoted Dr. Susan Swick, chief of child psychiatry at Newton Wellesley Hospital. She has been advising Newton schools and spoke to parents about how to build up their children’s resilience:

Nearly 400 parents attended Tuesday night's community forum on teen suicide at Newton South High School. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

Nearly 400 parents attended Tuesday night’s community forum on teen suicide at Newton South High School. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

“This involves maintaining good social connections,” Swick said. “It’s about coping skills, it’s about self-care, it about getting good sleep, adequate exercise and nutrition. It’s about cultivating an ability to be flexible, to use humor, some creativity. There’s no one recipe for the things that you do, but it’s cultivating good behaviors that build resilience.”

And make sure, Swick added, that children have a network of adults who know them, talk to them and keep an eye on them.

For more on resilience and how to cultivate it, we turned to Drs. Gene Beresin and Steve Schlozman, child psychiatrists at Massachusetts General Hospital and its Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds.

By Dr. Gene Beresin and Dr. Steve Schlozman
Guest contributors

A 10 year-old deeply invested in hockey develops juvenile diabetes.

Three kids, 4, 7 and 15, are told by their parents that they are getting a divorce.

The parents of a 16-year-old find to their horror that their son has taken a fatal overdose.

An 85-year-old woman who is a survivor of Auschwitz finds that her grandson is being deployed to Afghanistan.

A 35 year-old single mom who left an abusive relationship with her husband finds out that her 15-year-old has been sexually assaulted at school.

A 16-year-old boy is suddenly dumped by his girlfriend of two years.

Sometimes life deals a bad hand. While some might object to the relative merits of these particular vignettes as lacking equally weighted misfortunes, our goal here is not to rank the relative intensity of lousy events. Our goal, instead, is to accentuate that life itself is fickle, that life ebbs and flows, and that the fortunes and misfortunes that come with being human are in fact part of the human condition.

They key question is not “why” this stuff happens, but how in the world do we manage ourselves when these things occur?

That’s why we have pop music as well as Dostoyevsky.

The fact is that we all have horrible things happen to us. Understandably, these horrible things can potentially overshadow the good. It’s not like the vignettes above are uncommon. They are also, maddeningly, mostly not anyone’s fault.

They just happen.

They key question, then, is not why this stuff happens, but how in the world do we manage ourselves when these things occur?

Do we crumble? Do we become depressed or hopeless? Or do we rally?

Perhaps most important – how do we rally?

These questions of course make us once again visit the concept of resilience. How do we understand this? Are we born resilient, or do we build our resilience as we might train for a marathon?

Although we have some answers to these questions, the jury is still out. We’ve only recently as a culture become nationally invested in understanding the phenomena of resilience. Continue reading

Complex Cases Of ‘Parent-Ectomy,’ From New Yorker To Boston Globe

(An EPA photo, 1973, via Wikimedia Commons.)

(An EPA photo, 1973, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Is this a trend? A pendulum swinging? First came the heartbreaking story in the Dec. 2 New Yorker magazine of a single mother who left her three-year-old son alone in his crib one day to go to work, and lost custody of him — never to regain it again, no matter how she tried. It’s headlined ‘Where Is Your Mother?‘  I read every word with mounting horror as it became ever clearer that in the wake of her one mistake — admittedly a very bad one — and her inability to persuade the legal system to give him back to her, Niveen Ismail would lose her beloved son forever.

Now, the Boston Globe is running an investigation into cases of “medical child abuse” — in which parents are accused of hurting their children through medical interventions and can lose custody if they are ruled a threat. The Globe’s story focuses on a dispute between Boston Children’s Hospital staffers and a West Hartford couple, Linda and Lou Pelletier, whose 15-year-old daughter, Justina, has been hospitalized at Children’s for months. I read every word of this one, too, admiring the reporters for wading into a very contentious tale, and imagining the pain of parents deprived of contact with a very sick child. Then I got a shock at the end of today’s story: The case is still live, its ending unclear, a decision expected soon: From today’s story, Frustration On All Fronts In Struggle Over Child’s Future:

In the bitter cold of last Thursday morning, on the final day of the trial to determine Linda and Lou Pelletier’s fitness as parents, Juvenile Judge Johnston prepared to hear testimony from the witness at the center of it all. Justina was wheeled into the fourth-floor courtroom of the Edward Brooke Courthouse in Boston. Continue reading

Has Prescribing Psychotropic Drugs To Kids Peaked?

Are doctors starting to ease off on prescribing psychotropic drugs to young kids?

This seems to be the conclusion of a new study published in the journal of Pediatrics this week. The study’s design was relatively simple: gather data on 2-to 5-year-olds from national health surveys, and see what trends emerge. The findings? While behavioral diagnoses in young children have increased over the past two decades, prescriptions for psychotropic medications have been cut in half.

(Southworth Sailor/flickr)

(Southworth Sailor/flickr)

Why was there a prescription peak that has now stabilized, and what could explain the drop? I contacted Dr. Tanya Froehlich, a contributing author of the study and associate professor at the University of Cincinnati Department of Pediatrics, to shed some light on this phenomenon. She responded via email.

Dr. Froehlich attributed the decline to two major factors: regulatory controls and increasingly cautious doctors. Specifically, she said, decreasing prescription rates “may be due to physician and public concern about these medications spurred by a number of FDA advisories issued in the mid- to late 2000’s, including the black box warnings on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) and atomoxetine, and other advisories regarding psychostimulant-associated side effects.” Continue reading