Sunday, March 6, 2016

Perceptions of Children's Mental Health Issues

Yesterday I ran across an interesting online article published this week by the Huffington Post entitled “Why Every Parent Needs to Start Caring About Children’s Mental Health.” The author, Angela Pruess, a child and family therapist and a special needs parent, notes the stigma often attached with mental health conditions and emphasizes the need for greater understanding and awareness. [To read this article, please click here.] She explains that she has observed stigma both as a therapist of children and as the parent of a four-year-old daughter with anxiety and sensory processing issues. Perhaps if other people were less judgmental and better informed, she suggests, parents of children with mental health issues would be less ashamed and embarrassed.

The stigma associated with mental health issues that the author describes came as no surprise to me as the parent of a child with autism, a condition described in detail in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In addition, Alex has also been diagnosed with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, two condition often associated with autism that are classified as mental disorders. While we have chosen to be candid about Alex’s condition, hoping to help other parents like us and bringing awareness to those unfamiliar with autism spectrum disorders, some parents keep their children’s condition secret, perhaps because of the fear of stigma. Some parents never use their children’s names in writing or speaking about them, using nicknames or pseudonyms, and others even hesitate to use the term autism when describing their children’s condition.

What did surprise me about this article was the statistic the author provides regarding the frequency of mental health issues in children. She cites research from the National Institute of Mental Health that shows “just over 20 percent (or 1 in 5) of children, either currently or at some point during their life, have had a seriously debilitating mental disorder.” Of course, the rapidly increasing rates of autism could be part of the reason for this staggering statistic. This would mean that in a typical class of twenty-five students, five of them would be classified as having “a seriously debilitating mental disorder.” While that may seem unlikely, I have noted in my more than thirty years of teaching seventh grade in public schools a significant increase in the number of students who do have serious issues.

In describing the stigma associated with mental health disorders, the author asks an excellent question: “Where exactly does this disconnect happen in our minds, allowing us to validate diseases and treatment of the body, but not a disease of the brain?” Those who have mental health conditions typically do not receive the same compassion that those who have chronic health conditions do. In addition, the author mentions uninformed people offering opinions on “overmedicating” children with mental health issues. However, these same people would likely never question giving children with diabetes insulin or treating children who have cancer with chemotherapy. Those whose nervous systems do not function properly need treatment and compassion, just as those who have any other type of illness.

In describing her own daughter and the issues she faces, the author asserts that she has great hope for her daughter and her future. Specifically, she notes that she hopes that her daughter “won’t be seen as ‘less than’ for a condition that was part of her genetic wiring just as much as her blonde hair color was.” While I share this same maternal hope for my son, I don’t completely believe that genetic wiring is solely responsible for why Alex’s brain functions differently. Moreover, I believe that the increase in the number of children with mental disorders is directly linked to toxins in our environment. While these children may be genetically susceptible to illness that affects their brains, assaults to their nervous systems from toxins in the air they breathe, the foods they eat, and the heavy metals injected in them through vaccines ultimately disrupt their chemical balances. These problems likely begin in their guts, which have recently been found to be critical to the immune system, and eventually impact their brains. What appears to be a behavioral issue more than likely stems from a physical condition. Perhaps instead of delineating mental health conditions as separate from physical ailments, modern medicine should recognize that they all have similar sources: disruptions of the typical body functions.

Specifically, we know from extensive testing that Alex suffered from heavy metal toxicity, and we treated him with chelation therapy in which sulfur pills bonded with the toxic metals of arsenic, aluminum, and mercury to remove them from his body. In addition, tests revealed that he has sensitivities to dairy products and glutens, which we have removed from his diet since he was seven years old. Also, he has struggled with yeast overgrowth in his digestive tract that we have treated for many years with a variety of anti-fungal medications and supplements. When he has yeast flares, his behavior reflects this illness, notably through his increased anxiety and OCD. Consequently, what may look like a behavioral problem could actually have a physical, rather than psychological, cause.

My belief in physical causes of mental health issues also comes from personal experience as someone who has dealt with anxiety and panic attacks throughout my life. The most intense phases of anxiety were during adolescence and in my mid-forties, which were times marked by significant hormonal changes. In addition, my thyroid levels must be monitored regularly to make sure that the thyroid medication I take daily (because of hypothyroidism related to the removal of most of my thyroid more than twenty years ago) is the proper dosage. If my thyroid hormone levels are even slightly off, I can easily go into a phase of insomnia, anxiety, and panic attacks. Lowering the level of thyroid hormone even minimally can return me quickly to my typical relatively calm self.

Instead of viewing autism as a mental health issue and focusing too much on possible genetic causes or stereotypical behaviors, more doctors and therapists should recognize autism as a physical condition that can be treated. If, indeed, the child doesn’t feel well, it’s likely that he or she will not behave appropriately. If the person with autism has hormones that are unbalanced, anxiety is likely to erupt. Rather than just attributing all the behaviors to autism, perhaps we need to look deeper and find the true physical cause.

Yesterday, my dad and Ed were setting up a new television for my mom. Early in the process, they were derailed because the screws they needed to attach the television to the base that holds it could not be found anywhere. After looking through all the packaging, they were convinced that the screws were missing and they would need to return the television to the store and get another one or at least the missing pieces. My ability to find lost items and my tenacity in never giving up motivated me to go look for the missing screws myself. In less than a minute I was able to find them in a tiny plastic bag taped to a larger plastic bag, saving a trip to the store and allowing the installation process to continue. What was different about my search from theirs? They kept looking where the instructions told them the needed pieces were and somehow missed what I found. I think autism is like that. Scientists keep looking in the wrong places, and too many people give up too quickly when they can’t find what they’re seeking. Just like those missing pieces I found yesterday, I truly believe that one day the missing pieces to the autism mystery will be solved. In the meantime, I will keep searching for answers and sharing what I’ve learned, hoping to erase any stigma of autism and to create greater understanding for those whose lives have been touched by this condition.

“Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you.” Matthew 7:7

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