PBS stations nationwide ran a documentary last week on FRONTLINE entitled The Medicated Child. Marcela Gaviria produced this piece in an effort to respond to the dramatic increase in the number of children with serious psychiatric diagnoses, including bipolar disorder. The program also was to focus on the one-size-fits-all treatment with untested pharmaceutical medications that doctors are prescribing for these children.
According to child psychiatrist Dr. Patrick Bacon, trying medications on young children is really an experiment…a gamble… we do not know what’s going to work. I tuned in with great anticipation, hoping at last to see some expert reporting on alternatives to drugs, whcih can cause serious short-term reactions and unknown long-term effects. What I saw instead were many sick kids with black circles under their eyes, obvious vision problems and nutritional deficiencies that no one was talking about!
The trailer promised that the producer would “confront psychiatrists, researchers and government regulators about the risks and benefits of prescription drugs for troubled children.” Yet this film and its doctor experts offered few alternatives.
The Parents’ Guide written by Harvard Medical School child psychiatrist Joshua Sparrow to accompany the documentary “provides background on the issues associated with treating a child with psychiatric medications.” Unfortunately, it too falls short of giving parents and teachers any practical alternatives.
In the section entitled Observing, Describing and Understanding Your Child’s “Out-of-Control” Behavior, Sparrow offers several bullet points. I reproduce them here with my edition of the type of information I wish he had provided.
- Warning signs – Early risk factors for behavioral and learning issues include:
- Missed developmental steps, such as no crawling
- Repeated infections, such as strep, ear infections
- Skin problems, such as eczema and serious diaper rash
- Chronic diigestive problems, such as reflux, diarrhea or constipation
- An eye turn, called a strabismus
- Hyper- or hypo-reactivity to sensory stimulation such as lights, sounds and touch
- Triggers – All behaviors are reactions to something in the environment. Common triggers are:
- Foods. Some kids’ digestive systems react to popular foods, such as dairy products, gluten (the protein in wheat and other grains), eggs, chocolate and soy. In babies who have any of the above digestive warning signs, food is suspect. The reaction may not be immediate. I watched one child gradually dissolve an hour after a lunch of pizza and milk.
- Food additives. Artificial colors, flavors and preservatives, such as BHT cause behavioral issues in susceptible kids. The Feingold Association has known this for years and is available to help. Excitotoxins, such as fluoride, MSG and aspartame can all cause behavioral and psychiatric problems.
- Pesticides and cleaners. Many kids react to products used to exterminate bugs and eliminate bacteria. Behavioral issues are more common on Mondays than any other day, due to schools being cleaned on Friday and closed up all weekend.
- Chemicals from carpets, paints and other building materials. Any building with new construction or renovation is suspect. Formaldehyde from new cabinetry, fabrics and carpets can set off many kids. The fumes from new paint are also toxic.
- Perfumes and air fresheners. Some people become literally psychotic from breathing the artificial smells from these products.
- Contexts, settings – The cafeteria and playground are common “meltdown” arenas. Why? Because of the noise levels, bright lights in the former and possible mold, sprays and pollen in the latter. I know one boy who acted out every time he went to the “reading room” where the teacher had placed a lovely, toxic, area rug. Everyone thought he hated reading. What he hated was the rug, and when it was removed, he was fine!
- Symptoms – Symptoms are very individual and sometimes subtle. Doris Rapp, MD has been an expert on this for many years. Some kids go into meltdowns. Others may get spacey, talk too loudly, put their hands over their ears, stomp their feet, run in circles, scream, cry, kick, self-stimulate, throw things. Some may be seeing double, become unfocused, stare out the window, look “depressed,” get sleepy, blink, look out of the corner of their eyes, fiddle with their clothes, masturbate, mouth objects. Any and all of these symptoms must be looked at diagnostically, rather than as behaviors to extinguish.
- Aftermath – Timing, frequency and recovery periods are crucial to evaluate. Keeping good records will help in the Sherlock Holmes process of pinpointing and eliminating triggers.
- Effect on overall functioning – Environmental reactions can interfere with a child’s learning, social relationships, sports performance and consume a family’s emotional and financial resources. Make changes for all family members and the whole class rather than just for the behaviorally reactive child.
Consider non-pharmaceutical alternatives
If only FRONTLINE had included these interventions:
- Change the diet – Consider eliminating colors, flavors, preservatives, excitotoxins. Learn about Feingold, the Body Ecology Diet, the gluten-free dairy-free (GFCF) diet.
- Up the nutrition with foods and supplements – Add essential Omega 3 fats such as cod liver oil and flax. Studies show conclusively that good quality fats are efficacious alternatives to drugs
- See an occupational therapist (OT) – Have the child evaluated for sensory integration problems by a private therapist who can pinpoint underlying reflex integration issues, tactile defensiveness, vestibular dysfunction or auditory processing problems. Sensory-based OT can program the nervous system to respond in a more balanced way.
- See a developmental optometrist (OD) – Make sure the two eyes are working together as a team and that the brain is giving proper meaning to what it sees. With an eye turn, depth perception is impossible. Sometimes eye turns occur only intermittently and must be diagnosed by an expert. Therapeutic lenses and vision therapy that includes activities to help the eyes and brain work better together can alleviate behavioral and learning issues.
Congratulations to FRONTLINE for recognizing the serious risks medications for bipolar and other disorders pose. We heartily agree with them that research and insurance coverage for non-medication treatments are under-funded, and recommend that treatments such as these deserve further investigation.
We can also concur that the forty-fold increase in the number of children and adolescents diagnosed with bipolar disorder over the past 10 years might be due to preventable causes. The simultaneous increase in environmental toxins, reliance on technology such as computers and television, and changes in food nutrient contents and genetic engineering are just a couple of obvious areas to consider.
Thank you to the parents who took the time to tell their own stories of drug horrors and success with the Feingold program, naturopathy and other “natural’ solutions. Add yours! Maybe one day PBS will give us a useful commentary on how to prevent and help kids without drugs. I sure hope so! In the meantime, you can find out about more therapies that work in my book EnVISIONing a Bright Future.