Am I Safe? Psychiatrist’s Tips For Talking To Kids About The Paris Attacks

A victim outside the Bataclan theater in Paris (Jerome Delay/AP)

A victim outside the Bataclan theater in Paris (Jerome Delay/AP)

Advice columnist Steve Almond has a typically provocative piece on WBUR’s Cognoscenti today: “Why I’m Not Talking To My Kids About The Paris Attacks.” He and his wife decided, he writes, that “we have absolutely no interest in exposing our kids to the sort of panic-stricken coverage whose central aim is the profitable stoking of anxiety.”

But for parents whose children have been exposed to the news from Paris, here are some extensive and sage tips, broken down by age group, from child psychiatrist Gene Beresin, director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, re-posted with permission from The Clay Center’s website.

By Dr. Gene Beresin

Our hearts go out to the families of those who lost their lives or were injured in the recent terrorist acts in Paris.

At times like these, amid our shock, grief and fear, we need to be particularly attuned to the impact such events have on our children. Kids of all ages have questions and various emotional reactions — compounded all the more by the footage and commentary they may be seeing and experiencing. It is abundantly clear from sound research that children and teens can develop significant stress responses to what they are exposed to in the media.

While we want to shield our kids from the horrific images and stories of the terrorist attacks, it is increasingly hard to create an impervious shield. Full protection is impossible, and we should instead be prepared to help them in the wake of yet another mass killing.

While the world may feel to us increasingly unsafe, it’s our obligations as parents and caregivers to provide comfort, reassurance and guidance to our kids.

Here are some tips for all of us as we navigate this tragic time.

For Parents And Caregivers

Let’s face it: We’re all scared. These terrorist acts leave us feeling afraid, angry and insecure. However, we as adults need to find our own way of coping; after all, the more secure we feel, the better we are able to help our kids.

• We need, in times like these, to engage with others. Adults as well as kids require a sense of community to help us feel connected and protected. So, don’t worry alone; talk about what you are feeling with your partner, spouse and friends. It’s our relationships that hold us safely in this world.

• Make time for self-care through relaxing activities such as reading, listening to music or exercising.

• Pace yourself in terms of the amount of information you choose to consume. Sometimes, it’s best to just disconnect completely.

• If you have specific questions about your kids, call your pediatrician, primary care provider or mental health professional for advice.

Universal Impact On Children Of All Ages

Children need answers to three fundamental questions:

• Am I safe?

• Are you, the people who take care of me, safe?

• How will these events affect my daily life?

Parents should expect to answer these questions over and over again. For those with toddlers and preschool children who may not yet be able to express their concerns in words, it’s still important to reassure them that everyone is safe, and that life will continue in a normal fashion. Continue reading


Majority Of Young People With Depression Don’t Get Treatment, Report Finds

A new national snapshot of the state of mental health across America is, frankly, a little discouraging, especially when it comes to young people.

One startling finding from the annual report produced by the nonprofit Mental Health America: “[S]ixty-four percent of youth with depression do not receive any treatment.”

In addition, the report found:

Even among those with severe depression, 63 percent do not receive any outpatient services. Only 22 percent of youth with severe depression receive any kind of consistent outpatient treatment (7-25+ visits in a year).

I asked one of our frequent contributors, child psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Beresin, executive director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, for his thoughts on the report.

Here, lightly edited, is his response:

First, I am not surprised. There are a number of issues not emphasized by this summary:

1. There is a huge shortage of child and adolescent psychiatrists in the U.S. Currently there are about about 7,000.

So while many parents seek help, the access to care is severely limited. Primary care pediatricians are inadequately trained in psychiatry and this has been addressed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Their graduate training requires only two months in developmental behavioral pediatrics and few have any significant training in psychiatry. They are desperate to make referrals and often are at a loss to find qualified clinicians. Some states such as Massachusetts and New York have statewide efforts to assist them through consultation and education in psychiatry, but this only scratches the surface. Continue reading

Is It Possible To Prevent Suicide? 2 Psychiatrists Map Out The Ways

By Gene Beresin and Steve Schlozman

Suicide is awful, more common than you’d think and, in many cases, highly preventable.

Perhaps most important, in virtually every culture and every ethnic group on the planet, suicide is highly stigmatized. It therefore makes sense for the international health community to designate a day when we stop to actively contemplate this potent cause of misery and death. That’s today: World Suicide Prevention Day, though the harsh facts surrounding suicide are so much bigger than a single day.

The statistics, from the International Association for Suicide Prevention, are staggering:

*There are an estimated 800,000 deaths every year throughout the world that are directly attributable to suicide.

*This number is probably under-reported, given the stigma associated with suicide, and the fact that deliberate, self-harming behavior is often misclassified as an accident. The teen that drives into a street lamp at 100 mph could very well be attempting suicide, and not be the victim of an automobile mishap.

*Suicide is the 15th leading cause of death on the planet.

*Suicide is more common among older people (70 years of age and up), but also occurs in middle-aged and younger individuals at alarming rates.

*Lower income nations endure more suicides, but suicide remains a major cause of death in developed nations as well.

*Suicide has been tied to numerous psychiatric illnesses (mostly mood disorders), to difficult economic or traumatic situations and environments, to substance use disorders (both with and without addiction), to the loss of loved ones, and to a lack of good follow-up care following suicide attempts.

*The number one predictor of death by suicide is a previous attempt.

2013 U.S. suicide rate by age group, via CDC

Why So Common?

In other words, we know a lot about suicide. So if we know so much, why does suicide remain so stubbornly common?

The answer to this question is actually much less concrete than we might think. Studies on post-suicide-attempt intervention are lacking and under-represented. Studies on pre-suicide-attempt intervention are also insufficient in generating a simple and generalizable prevention methodology. Moreover, the likelihood of creating a one-size-fits-all approach is minimal. This might be why we know less than we’d like to.

There are studies that show that email, phone and in-person communication following an attempt can make a positive difference, but these studies have relatively low numbers of participants and clearly need follow-up. We also have studies that show we can increase the understanding of suicide and its risk factors in high schools and colleges, but it isn’t clear whether this understanding leads to decreased suicide rates. We do know that treatment as usual — that is, telling someone to go to an appointment with a yet-to-be-met clinician following his or her discharge from an emergency room or hospital — falls short of other more personal interventions.

All of this points to a common flaw in the understanding of suicide.

Suicide isn’t a formal disease. We don’t treat suicide itself. We treat the causes of suicide.

Continue reading


CDC: One-Third Of Children With ADHD Diagnosed With The Disorder Before Age 6

(Vivian Chen/Flickr)

(Vivian Chen/Flickr)

One-third of children diagnosed with ADHD were diagnosed young — before the age of 6 — according to a new national survey from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Earlier, the CDC found that based on parental reports, 1 in 10 school-aged children, or 6.4 million kids in the U.S., have received a diagnosis of ADHD, a condition marked by symptoms including difficulty staying focused and paying attention, out of control behavior and over-activity or impulsivity.

The percentage of children diagnosed with ADHD has increased steadily since the late 1990s and jumped 42 percent from 2003-2004 to 2011-2012, the CDC says. Last year, concerns flared when a report found that thousands of toddlers are being medicated for ADHD outside of established pediatric practice guidelines.

In the current analysis, also based on parental reporting, and using data drawn from the 2014 National Survey of the Diagnosis and Treatment of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Tourette Syndrome, the CDC also found:

•The median age at which children with ADHD were first diagnosed with the disorder was 7 years old

•The majority of children (53.1%) were first diagnosed by a primary care physician

•Children diagnosed before age 6 were more likely to have been diagnosed by a psychiatrist

•Children diagnosed at age 6 or older were more likely to have been diagnosed by a psychologist

•Among children diagnosed with ADHD, the initial concern about a child’s behavior was most commonly expressed by a family member (64.7%)

•Someone from school or daycare first expressed concern for about one-third of children later diagnosed with ADHD (30.1%)

•For approximately one out of five children (18.1%), only family members provided information to the child’s doctor during the ADHD assessment

What are we — parents, educators, doctors — to make of all this? In particular, what does it mean that so many very young kids are being diagnosed with an attention disorder? (Has anyone ever encountered a 4- or 5-year-old child who is not hyperactive, impulsive and inattentive??)

I asked two doctors — a pediatrician and a psychiatrist — for their impressions of the CDC report. Both agreed that we seem to have two problems when it comes to ADHD: over-diagnosing and under-diagnosing. Here, lightly edited, are their responses.

First, the pediatrician:

James M. Perrin, MD, is a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and associate chair of MassGeneral Hospital for Children. Dr. Perrin is also the immediate past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics and chaired the 1990s committee that wrote the first practice guidelines for ADHD (and he was on the committee for the 2011 revision).

RZ: How difficult is it to diagnose ADHD in children under 6 years old?

JP: In the pediatric community, we have worked over last 15 years to train general pediatricians to make diagnoses of ADHD reliably and follow very clear, specific guidelines on how to do so. In 2011, the AAP revised its practice guidelines for ADHD and included the opportunity to diagnose children ages 4 and 5 years old.

At the same time we recognize it’s very hard to do that well in that age group…because a lot of children are inattentive at 4 — you don’t expect them to work hard and read a Hardy boys book for an hour and half. Five is often impulsive, active, so it’s not unusual to have symptoms that children with ADHD would also have at age 4, 5. So, it’s not easy.

We did say [in the guidelines] pretty clearly that you shouldn’t make the diagnoses without significant impairment of normal behavior. What we mean by that is a child whose symptoms impair her ability to play with other children, or whose behavior is so out of control that it’s dangerous, for instance she runs out in front of cars, or has many accidents, that’s when the symptoms become impairing. Continue reading

Elderly And Drugged: Far More Psych Meds Prescribed To Old Than Young

Evidence suggests that anti-anxiety medications like Xanax increase the risk of falls in older adults, which can cause a cascade of problems. (johnofhammond/Flickr, with edits by WBUR)

Evidence suggests that anti-anxiety medications like Xanax increase the risk of falls in older adults, which can cause a cascade of problems. (johnofhammond/Flickr, with edits by WBUR)

By Nell Lake
Guest Contributor

Are we over-treating the elderly with psychiatric drugs?

That’s the natural question arising from a recent report that found adults over 65 are receiving psychotropic medications at twice the rate of younger adults. The study, published in this month’s Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, also found that elders are much less likely to get their mental health care from psychiatrists or to receive psychotherapy.

What’s the problem? First, psychotropic drugs generally pose greater risks to the elderly than they do to younger patients, and non-drug approaches, from therapy to meditation, may be as effective as psychotropic medications for some seniors’ mental disorders, without the risks.

The findings suggest that physicians and insurers should reassess psychotropic drug use among the elderly, says lead author Donovan Maust, a geriatric psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan.

Maust’s team used 2007-2010 data from the CDC’s National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey and from the U.S. Census to compare the rates at which older and younger adults — those 65 and older, and those 18-64 — get prescribed psychotropic medications during outpatient doctors’ visits. After analyzing more than 100,000 of these doctor visits, and taking into account the fact that the younger population is much larger than the older one, the researchers found that older adults were much more likely to be prescribed psychiatric drugs for anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. Researchers also found that these seniors were less likely to receive other types of non-drug treatment for their mental distress.

The importance of all this is fairly clear: The elderly population is booming, and seniors use the health care system more than any other demographic. So, finding safe, effective and appropriate treatments for their mental health problems is critical — for the well-being of a large swath of people, and as a policy matter.

Too Many Meds, And The Wrong Kind?

Psychotropic drugs pose both direct and indirect risks to the elderly: First, the drugs themselves can be dangerous. The American Geriatrics Society lists many psychotropic medications as potentially inappropriate for elderly patients. Continue reading

Researchers Say They Can Lift Depression In Mice By Activating Happy Memories



You know when you’re feeling really down, or worse, in the throes of depression, and there’s always that chirpy person who earnestly says: “Just try to focus on happy thoughts; think positive!” Well, it turns out, that unshakeable optimist may have a point.

MIT scientists report that they are able to “cure” the symptoms of depression — in mice — by artificially activating happy memories that were formed before the depression took hold.

The findings, published in the journal Nature, hint at a future in which depression might be treated by manipulating brain cells where memories are stored.

MIT graduate student Steve Ramirez, the lead author on the paper, explains that while the work is tantalizing, it’s a long way from any real-world application in people:

“We’re doing basic science that aims to figure out how the brain works and how it can produce memory,” Ramirez said in an email. “The more we know about how the brain works, the better equipped we are to figure out what happens when brain pieces break down to give rise to broken thoughts. In my opinion, we’re a technological revolution away from being able to do this in humans; everything that exists currently is too invasive and not targeted enough. That said, the underlying proof-of-principles are there, as we can do these kinds of manipulations in animals. The question is how we can do this in humans in an ethically responsible and clinically-relevant manner.”

Still, he says, researchers did not expect such clear results:

“The finding that stimulating positive memories over and over actually forces the brain to make new brain cells was surprising,” he wrote. “We did not expect to have such a clean result demonstrating that artificially activated positive memories correlates with an increase in the number of new brain cells that are made.” Continue reading

Differing Views On Antidepressants During Pregnancy

The question of taking antidepressants during pregnancy is extremely intimate and complicated. Research studies evaluating the risks and benefits are mixed. There are documented harms, like an elevated risk of pre-term birth. But there are also the documented harms of untreated depression. In other words, it’s a deeply personal health decision that requires judgement based on a body of data that offers no easy answers.

The latest on this fraught debate comes from Andrew Solomon who wrote a long piece published in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, “The Secret Sadness,” with this basic message: “Pregnant women who are depressed often fear taking the medication they rely on. But not treating their depression can be just as dangerous.”

Solomon, whose own depression is well documented in his powerful book, “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression,” (The Times piece will be added as a new chapter in the book) begins the magazine article with an anecdote about Mary Guest, “a lively, accomplished 37-year-old woman” who “fell in love, became pregnant and married after a short courtship.”

Struggling with depression for much of her life, Mary took various antidepressant and anti-anxiety drugs, Solomon writes, but decided to discontinue the meds during pregnancy. But Mary’s mood and behavior “spiraled downward” so, “near the end of her fifth month of pregnancy, she finally, reluctantly, resumed taking an antidepressant,” he writes.

Then, at six-and-a-half months pregnant, and convinced that something was wrong with her fetus, Mary “went to the 16th floor of the building where her parents lived and jumped to her death.” Solomon quotes Mary’s mother saying: “We feel, rightly or wrongly, that if Mary had stayed on her medications, or even gone back on them sooner, it’s possible she would have survived.”

It’s an intense, moving story.

But Dr. Adam Urato, an assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston and a maternal-fetal medicine physician at Tufts Medical Center and MetroWest Medical Center in Framingham, says he’s got an important story to tell too: that antidepressants can also cause harm. Urato writes and lectures on this topic frequently, and says he feels that Solomon’s piece didn’t offer the complete picture. (Here’s Urato’s full rebuttal to Solomon’s article on the website Mad In America, published by journalist Robert Whitaker.

Solomon quotes Urato in the Times story (in fact, some of the quotes come from a post Urato wrote for CommonHealth). But Urato says his views weren’t fully reflected. Here, edited are a few of Urato’s points:

1. Anecdotes Have Limitations

No one wants a pregnant woman to kill herself. An article in which pregnant women stop their medications and kill themselves while others continue on their meds and have happy outcomes is sure to push readers in an obvious direction. However, such anecdotes are limited.

For example, the author could have told stories of women who stayed on their medications, weren’t counseled regarding the risks, and had severely impaired babies. Continue reading

Dr. Mark Vonnegut: On Creativity, Being ‘Crazy’ And Getting Help

By Mark Vonnegut, M.D.
Guest Contributor

Being related to a famous person is somewhere between a cruel joke and a minor distraction. My father was immensely talented and worked very hard at his writing, but the degree of his success was a fantastically unlikely bit of luck. There are lots of talented, hard-working artists who don’t make it.

The important thing in overcoming mental illness, whether or not you have a famous last name, is to want things to be better — and being willing to get help to make that happen.

Dr. Mark Vonnegut (Courtesy)

Dr. Mark Vonnegut (Courtesy)

Both of my parents’ families advised them to stay away from one another, as mental illness was rumored to be in each other’s family. The rumors were true, but it wasn’t like anyone then or now comes with any guarantees. It makes us feel more alive to be able to see, listen to and read great art, partly because great art is often the result of great struggle. The idea that artists and “the mentally ill” have inner demons while the rest of us do not is part of what has made it — and continues to make it — so hard to come to terms with mental illness.

The reason the arts and craziness run in families is because crazy people who can sing and dance and paint pictures and write well do a much better job of convincing others to have babies with them than if they’re just plain crazy. Thus has it ever been.

In my career as a mental patient, I started with schizophrenia, worked my way up through manic depression, and have now settled at bipolar disorder. I can joke about it because I recovered sufficiently to get into and through medical school, internship and residency, and have had the enormous honor and privilege of being trusted by parents to help them and their children. I make no bones about it; I make mistakes just like everyone else, but am very proud of how well I do my job.

I’m also very aware of how easily I could have ended up otherwise — a suicide statistic or just another broken young man who never got well enough to have a life. Continue reading

The Upside Of Admission To The Psych Unit: A Doctor’s Inside View

By Helen M. Farrell, M.D.
Guest Contributor

I met J in the Emergency Department. Dark red blood was oozing out of self-inflicted deep lacerations to her forearms. The surgical team was consulted and the cuts were debrided, cleaned, stitched and neatly bandaged. J was patched up. But she was not healed. Her wounds ran deeper than a surgeon’s instruments could access.

Together, we had a thoughtful conversation that included a review of her suicidal thoughts, intermittent hallucinations and innermost feelings. These vacillated unpredictably between anger and worthlessness. I informed J that she was going to be admitted to the psychiatric unit for her safety and treatment.

“Locked up?!” These are typical words expressed by patients who learn that they are going to be admitted involuntarily to the psychiatric unit. When J heard this news, her own tear-stained face scrunched up in an expression of horror. After several minutes of pleading, she finally resigned herself to the plan.

A nurse came into the room and took J’s phone. She took her sweater, her belt and the laces from her shoes. J stripped down into a standard hospital gown. It is common for patients to make one last plea and many have told me that they fear the psychiatric unit is analogous to prison.

J is representative of the many patients whom I treat on a day-to-day basis. She is a composite of those actual people who suffer from serious mental illnesses ranging from psychotic and mood disorders to personality disorders that require hospital level care.

Not Your Mother’s Psych Ward
The days of psychiatrists wantonly locking up patients like J against their will are long gone. They have been replaced by a legal process called civil commitment that firmly puts patients’ rights first. Yes, J was being admitted against her will, but she would retain her power to make treatment decisions, summons legal counsel, and even have a hearing with a judge. These safeguards apply to patients like J who are mentally ill and at risk of harm to themselves or others as a direct result of mental illness.

We know about the extreme cases of mental illness — those who involuntarily get locked on a psychiatric unit. An estimated one-quarter of the United States population will suffer from mental illness. But what about those people whom we never hear about? Far too many people, victims of stigma, neglect treatment and suffer in the isolating silence of darkness. They are compelled to withdraw because of fear and shame.

Beyond Shock Therapy

Driving much of that stigma is the fantasy of what happens behind that infamous locked door. Images from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” fill people’s imaginations, as do fantasies of the “shock therapy” room, which many incorrectly think is a place of punishment and not treatment. Continue reading

More resources:

One Doc’s Oreos-And-Batman Perspective: TV Doesn’t (Necessarily) Make Kids Fat

(Donnie Ray Jones/Flickr)

(Donnie Ray Jones/Flickr)

By Steve Schlozman, MD

Here are three recent headlines that got me thinking about kids and fat:

“Watching one hour of TV per day increases risk for obesity by 50%”

“Watching TV for Just an Hour a Day Can Make Children Obese”

“Study makes surprising link between TV time and childhood obesity”

Oversimplifications? Um, yes. Each of these headlines greatly simplifies (dare I say, incorrectly simplifies) a critical social and health issue. Personally, I don’t think TV is the sole evil culprit here. It’s far more complicated.

The medical community has long known that the amount of TV that a child watches correlates with obesity. We can even make some leaps from these data towards implicating causality. Unless your little ones happen to be doing aerobic exercises while they tune in to their cartoons, it’s easy to see how passive watching can equal active weight gain.

However, be wary of oversimplification and especially of the “one-size-fits-all” policy statements that these headlines often generate. The study authors here do, in fact, suggest further limiting TV exposure based on the existing American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines for young children as a means of controlling the rate of obesity in this country. (Currently, the AAP recommends limiting screen time to one to two hours or less for children over the age of 2, and discouraging screen time altogether for those who are younger.)

So, here’s the big question: Is the recommendation that TV time be further limited an entirely appropriate conclusion?

Beyond The Headlines

The answer, like many answers to social policy questions, is both yes and no.

What we know for certain is that we can’t really discern from the headlines what we ought to do, though there is ample reason to believe that most American rarely go beyond the headlines. Thus, we run the risk of jumping to more draconian conclusions than might be appropriate simply because we don’t have or take sufficient time to examine the flood of information.

How do we guard against this leap to oversimplification?

Here are a few key questions:

•Was there a large and diverse population studied?

There have been solid links between lower socioeconomic groups and some ethnic minorities and increased television time, as well as between lower socioeconomic groups and obesity.

The causes for both of these issues are of course multi-factorial. Fatty foods and higher calorie foods are cheaper. TV can function as a babysitter in households where parents are busy working and living paycheck to paycheck. However, the study in the headlines above, conducted by the Department of Education in conjunction with physicians at the University of Virginia, was indeed both large and diverse.

Over 12,000 children starting kindergarten were enrolled in the investigation, and a year later follow-up data was available for more than 10,000 of these children. These data included height and weight, as well as statistical analyses to account for differences in race, gender and socioeconomic effects. In other words, the numbers here are sufficiently large and diverse for us to feel comfortable drawing at least preliminary conclusions.

Causality, Really?

But beware, always beware, of flashy headlines. A Google search yielded all of the headlines above with equal weight, and yet one of the headlines clearly implicates causality. “Watching TV for just an hour a day can make a child obese.” (My italics.)

However, this study does not in any way suggest causality. There are a number of potentially unrelated factors that also happen everyday that might be associated with obesity, but not function as a cause of obesity. These could include behaviors like longer baths to cool down. We don’t know until we do the study whether longer baths would be associated with obesity. In other words, always be wary of blanket statements of causality with regard to the complexity of human behavior.

•What about the ample availability of screen-based material on demand? Perhaps the fact that children can often watch both what they want and when they want it affects their activity patterns in negative ways. We could ponder the fact that TV content, even for kids, has arguably (though not in all spheres) gotten better and of higher quality. There is even evidence that TV watching can improve behavior among kids, and this evidence also comes from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Does that mean we ought to make a policy statement advocating that TV should be less compelling?

Confessing My Bias

Things get even messier when we take the necessary step of examining our own personal biases. In my case, that examination includes a shameless confession regarding the ways my own penchants might complicate my interpretation of these data. Continue reading