Inattention and distractibility are caused by many medical conditions and life situations. You child may not have ADHD or ADD if they didn’t show signs when they were young.
Children don’t just catch ADHD or ADD
If your child has a behavioral change you haven’t seen before, there may be an underlying medical or co-occurring mental disorder that’s causing ADHD symptoms… especially if they’re on ADHD-ADD medications which are not working well.
“It is vital not to mistake another medical or psychiatric condition as ADHD.”
— Richa Bhatia, MD, Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association
The medical conditions listed below produce ADHD and/or ADD symptoms such as slow processing speed, impulsive behavior, and limited attention and focus.
Epileptic seizures: some types cause a brief freeze in thinking–the child’s brain goes blank for a few moments (“absence seizures”)
Diseases of the brain: Lyme disease, HIV infection, parasitic and viral infections, brain tumors
Brain damage from head injury or toxins (e.g. narcotics)
Chemotherapy side-effects, “stupor”
Hypothyroidism. Too little thyroid hormone results in memory, attention, and concentration problems. It decreases blood flow in brain regions that mediate attention and executive functioning (the hippocampus and cerebral cortexes).
Hyperthyroidism. At the other extreme, too much thyroid hormone causes anxiety and tension, irritability and impatience, and hyperactivity and distraction.
Sleep apnea. A condition where a child stops breathing during sleep, for a few seconds to a few minutes several times per night. The following day, the child can’t pay attention, remember, or follow a sequence of steps. It also causes hyperactivity and belligerence.
Mental health disorders with ADHD-like symptoms:
Anxiety disorders are common to most other mental health conditions, and create problems with concentration. The chronic stress from anxiety affects the brain regions responsible for memory and cognitive functions. If a child does not have a history of ADHD symptoms, than significant and pervasive anxiety may be the cause of inattention and distraction.
Abuse or trauma. Difficulty concentrating is one of the core symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and recent abuse or trauma can cause agitation, restlessness, and behavioral disturbance—symptoms that mimic ADHD.
Depression – Difficulty concentrating also is a criterion for major depressive disorder.
Bipolar disorder – ADHD symptoms are apparent in children with suspected bipolar disorder. Both disorders can cause distractibility, increased energy, and instant mood swings. (Some children are eventually diagnosed with both disorders.)
Drug abuse using marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, produce similar symptoms of ADHD because they affect the same brain regions affected by anxiety. MRI scans of the brain were taken of young children who were exposed to cocaine in the womb. The scans revealed frontal lobe malformations which predicted long-term problems with attention and impulse control.
Common stimulant foods and beverages with excess caffeine or sugar
Insomnia from medical conditions. Sleep plays a huge role in memory and attention. Sleep disorders (e.g., sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome) can produce chronic tiredness and significantly reduce attention, concentration, and cognitive functioning in children, adolescents, and adults.
Plain old lack of sleep in healthy children can cause inattention and reduce academic achievement. There are many causes of sleep loss: early school hours; screen time at least an hour before bed (because the blue light suppresses sleepiness); or allowing the use of technology in the bedroom at nighttime. What helps getting to sleep and staying asleep:
A cool, dark room
Thirty minutes of reading or drawing on paper before lights out.
Removing phones, laptops, or desktops from the bedroom at night.
Learning disorders: Children with an undiagnosed learning disorder often present with ADHD symptoms. An undiagnosed reading or mathematics disorder (dyslexia), or an autism spectrum disorder that’s not yet diagnosed, can have a significant impact on classroom behavior. The child might not be paying attention because of his (her) restricted ability to grasp the subject matter, or because they are frustrated and irritated with the struggle to keep up.
Caution: Teachers often report a student’s inattention and confused thinking to parents, and suggest a diagnosis of ADHD when the real problem may be lack of sleep or something else. It’s useful to hear classroom observations of your child, but teachers are not trained in mental health diagnosis—get a second opinion from a professional!
Have you been searching for psychiatric residential treatment for your child? Do all the programs sound wonderful? Ads include quotes from happy parents, and lovely photos and fabulous-sounding activities. But what’s behind the ads? Residential treatment programs are diverse, but there are important elements they should all have. Here’s how to avoid low quality residential treatment.
Psychiatric residential treatment is serious stuff–it’s difficult to do–especially when troubled children and teens are put together in one facility.
Should you ask other parents for their opinion of a program? In my experience with a child in psychiatric residential care, and as a former employee of one, word-of-mouth is not a reliable way to assess quality or success rate. There are too many variables: children’s disorders are different; acuity is different; parents’ attitudes and expectations are different; length of time in the facility is different; what happens once a child returns home is different… It’s most helpful to ask questions of intake staff and doctors or psychologists on staff. Quality psychiatric residential care facilities have important things in common.
What to ask about the staff:
What is the training and licensure of staff? Are there therapists with MSW degrees, registered nurses, psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners, and is a medical professional available on site 24/7?
There should be a high staff to patient ratio, and a physically comfortable environment with lots of emotional support.
Do the staff seem mature to you? Do they support each other, are they a team? There is often heavy staff turnover at residential treatment centers because the work is emotionally draining, so staff cohesion is as important as the qualities of each individual.
Safety is paramount. What are the safety and security plans in the facility? Staff must be able to safely manage anything that can go wrong with troubled kids. They should be trained in NCI (Nonviolent Crisis Intervention), “training that focuses on prevention and offers proven strategies for safely defusing anxious, hostile, or violent behavior at the earliest possible stage.”
What to ask about programs:
Does the program specifically identify parent/family involvement as part of treatment? Does it emphasize parent partnership with staff? Ask. Whether you live close or far from the center, even out-of-state, you should be regularly included in conversations with staff about your child’s treatment. You should also be included in a therapy session with your child periodically; some facilities can connect with you over Skype. Your child’s success in psychiatric care depends on their family’s direct involvement.
The program should coach you in specific parenting approaches that work for child’s behavioral needs. While your child is learning new things and working on their own changes, you must know what to establish back home when they return.
You should be informed why your child is getting the treatment or behavioral modifications he/she is receiving.
Last and most important: when your child leaves, there should be a discharge meeting and a discharge plan. What this means: all staff who worked with your child get together with you and discuss what treatment should continue once they go home. Medication management and therapy is identified in advance, appropriate school accommodations are discussed, changes in the home environment are discussed if needed… You should never leave without knowing what comes next in the months following care.
Body health is brain health, and vice versa.
Mental health treatment will include medication and therapy, but must also include positive activities and an educational program. The whole body needs care: exercise, social activities, therapeutic activities (art, music, gardening), healthy food, restful sleep, etc.
Is your child emotionally safe as well as physically safe?
You should be able to visit the unit or cottage where your child will live, see their bedroom, and see how the other children interact with staff and how staff interact with each other.
What to ask about the business itself:
Can you take a tour ahead of time? Can your child or teen visit too if appropriate?
Are emergency services nearby (hospital, law enforcement) that can arrive quickly?
Does the facility have a business license in their state? Do they have grievance procedures? Is the center accredited as a treatment facility, and by whom? In the U.S., the main accreditation authority for healthcare facilities is The Joint Commission.
Psychiatric residential treatment works miracles, but it doesn’t work for all children. Some need to go into treatment more than once to benefit. Some fall apart a few weeks or months after discharge. These are common. What’s important is that staff observations and advice help you and your child with insight and skills for managing his or her unique symptoms, and for communicating effectively.
What was your experience when your child was in residential care? Please share your comment so others can learn.
Most of us have bullied someone and have been bullied at some time in our lives. We have an aggressive trait that helps us stand up to a threat. We are emboldened to fight when we fear for ourselves or family, or simply when we’re “not going to take this anymore!” Mature people don’t do this without cause, but children and teens lack maturity and can engage in bullying throughout their school years. (Even the nicest children can bully another person.) Victims of bullying usually don’t have the power and skills to prevent it or to protect themselves.
“This is a huge problem in the schools… it’s particularly common in grades 6 through 10, when as many as 30 percent of students report they’ve had moderate or frequent involvement in bullying.”
–Dr. Joyce Nolan Harrison, assistant professor of psychiatry, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Bullying occurs when others aren’t paying attention… or when there is an audience In schools, bullies target victims where and when authorities can’t see, isolated but in crowds: hallways, the school lunch room, the playground or gym, and the bathroom or dressing room, not in plain sight of others who might report an incident. Or they have an audience that supports the bully or ignores the situation and doesn’t want to get involved… or tell.
Bullies target those they consider “weak” or simply “different” What makes a target child “weak” could be so many things. Bullies seize on anything: a physical, emotional, or mental vulnerability–children with learning disabilities or autism spectrum disorders are often targets. But any “different” child is at risk: a child from another culture is different, a boy who seems effeminate or a girl who seems masculine. The list of reasons children are bullied is so long that it is impossible to proactively avoid attracting the attention of a motivated bully or bullies: physical features, small stature, younger age, shy or meek personalities, bad fashion sense (or perfect fashion sense), even being a Straight “A” student is cause for being victimized. A child’s family member might be perceived as an embarrassment that elicits bullying (a brother is in prison, a father lost his job). Or a child might be a member of a group that’s hated by the parents, who teach their child to hate the group. Some victims are chosen simply because they are at the wrong place at the wrong time:
A teen walks his usual route home from school. He is reasonably well liked but doesn’t stand out. Ahead are three troublesome youth he doesn’t know. No one is around. He’s still at a distance, but starts to feel uncomfortable. They stand side-by-side on the walk ahead of him and stare.
What would a street-wise kid do?
He crosses the street without breaking stride, but also watches them—they have to know he sees them. If he pretended to ignore them it could inflame their anger. They start taunting. Meanwhile, the teen has been thinking of ways to protect himself just in case: there’s a store is nearby or within running distance, there’s a neighbor who’s usually at home. If he has a phone, he pulls it out and is ready to dial 911. He stays alert and looks confident, and they eventually drop the effort and let him move on.
Bullies punish kids who try to stop the bullying
Those who “snitch.” Victims who ask for help are often targeted by the bully more intensely, and often joined by associates who simply jump the bandwagon (curious behavior described as “the madness of crowds”). The culture of tweens and teens has low tolerance for those who tell on others. Those who join the bullying episode against the victim can do it without thinking, or perhaps they feel empowered to vent anger on someone, or just want to fit in.
Those who try to stop them. A heroic bystander steps in to stop a bullying episode and becomes the target themselves.
Those who want to leave the bullying group. Some kids have second thoughts and feel uncomfortable about the bullying and try to leave, but they can’t. Leaving attracts intense, relentless bullying for “voting with their feet”—this is a hallmark of gang behavior
Sadly, some children appear to “set themselves up” for bullying. This victim is a child with a fatalistic attitude and low self-esteem, who doesn’t recognize when others take advantage of them. They feel they must endure and don’t take steps to protect themselves out of excessive fear of drawing retribution. These are the kind of children who can become victims of physical or emotional domestic violence as adults.
If your child is a victim, be aware that they live between a rock and a hard place. Be careful that your involvement doesn’t make things worse for them
Armor your child with multiple skills There is no one way to handle every bully situation so flexibility is key. Together, develop a list of multiple options:
Ask friends to accompany them
Go to a place where people are and find an adult to help. Walk the other way, walk down different hall, walk to other side of street, use a different bathroom.
Request loudly “LEAVE ME ALONE” when there’s an audience to witness the bullying, such as on a bus or standing in line.
Use body language to project a firm stance. This can be the way your child stands or the loudness of their voice when the bully is present to show confidence, alertness, and empowerment.
Let your child know you take them seriously and will do something about it. Give them emotional support.
Let your child know you will back them up by working with the school.
Use the situation as a learning opportunity to help your child develop a backbone and inner strength. Even with your support, this will not be easy for your child to handle. Be a model of strength and resolve rather than of vengeance or anger.
Consider mental health issues that might be making things worse for your child: ADHD, ODD, depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, chaos and stress at home, PTSD, substance abuse, and others.
“Help the bullied kids find each other. If there are a bunch of them together, they can stand the bully down. They don’t have to beat the bully up. They just have to say, ‘Why are you treating my friend this way?’ The bully will often move on… Parents can appropriately take matters into their own hands. You need to enlist the help of all the other parents of bullied children… Parents have to work as a group. One parent is a pain in the [butt]. A group of parents can be an educational experience for school authorities.” –William Pollack, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry, Harvard Medical School
Don’t tell your child to “let it go, ”or “it’s no big deal,” or “it happens, deal with it.”
Don’t tell your child to be tough. What does “tough” mean? What do you want them to do?
Don’t punish or dismiss a child who complains too much, or blame him/her for setting themselves up and asking for it. Ironically, a victim is sometimes treated as the problem child.
Don’t bully your child at home! Are you doing this? Think. Your child learns to accept the inevitability of bullying because he or she is accustomed to it at home.
How things can go wrong: A boy is in the shower after PE class and gets slapped on the butt most days. He is too proud/embarrassed to tell his parents, or he tells and they react poorly. Perhaps he’s blamed for not standing up for himself, or a parent shows up outraged at school and yells at the bully or school staff. Now the boy’s parent is the problem and may be suspected of bullying their child. Or school staff overreact with swift punitive actions to the bully. Time passes and the bully starts up again bit by bit, only much more subtly. The boy is afraid to report it again because the encounters are more secretive. The bully denies his behavior and recruits others to advocate for him. They jump on the bandwagon because they don’t know the history, and the boy doesn’t want to tell everyone he is being sexually harassed. It’s a vicious cycle.
Teachers and schools
“You can’t learn if you’re being bullied, if every day you’re frightened of how you’re going to be treated.” –William Pollack, cited above
Teachers, pay attention to signs that there’s a skilled, secretive bully at the school.
Notice who others avoid.
Notice a child coming into the class who’s upset and ask them about it later, promise you’ll protect their anonymity if you can get them to reveal a bully, but don’t pressure them.
Observe the problem kid and their subtle interactions with others.
Allow a victim(s) to have distance from bully, permission to use a different bathroom, to have their desk placed farther apart, to have a locker farther apart, or even a different class if possible.
Inform the parents of your concerns in addition to the principle and school counselor.
Focus your behavioral interventions on the bully (not the victims)
Avoid diagnosing the situation. You are not the expert. You don’t know why a bully is a bully, or why a victim is a victim, or anything about their parents. Ensure a school counselor is involved in any discussion about how to manage a bully problem in the school.
Avoid jumping to conclusions! Your actions can unintentionally undermine or harm either the child or their parents. You don’t know until you know.
“Bullies are like the lion looking for a deer that’s left the herd,” says Patrick Tolan, director of the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois. “They try to single out the weakest kid. The best way to stop this is to work on increasing inclusion by helping the bullied kids with social skills.”
Bullies are usually bullied themselves (see another article Bullies like their victims, are also at risk). Only very small percentage are sociopathic, or who are intrinsically cruel and without empathy, perhaps 1 in a 100. How do you tell? If someone sets a clear boundary with punitive consequences, the disturbed bully will relentlessly target a victim regardless of how much trouble they get in.
I wish to personally thank Barry Diggs, probation and parole officer for the Oregon Youth Authority, for his insights into bullying behavior, which helped me develop this article. Margaret
If you have helped a child effectively cope with bullying, please share your story in the Comments below so others can learn from your story.
Bullying Linked to Violence at Home April 2011
Bullying is pervasive among middle school and high school students in Massachusetts and may be linked to family violence, a new study finds. In a survey of 5,807 middle-school and high-school students from almost 138 Massachusetts public schools, researchers from the Massachusetts Department of Health and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that those involved in bullying in any way are more likely to contemplate suicide and engage in self-harm compared to other students. Those involved in bullying were also more likely to have certain risk factors, including suffering abuse from a family member or witnessing violence at home, compared to people who were neither bullies nor victims.
Cyberbullying (this is a superb and comprehensive article by an expert on cyberbullying)
Survey: Half of High Schoolers Report Bullying or Teasing Someone “Ethics of American Youth Survey”, Josephson Institute of Ethics
Half of U.S. high schoolers say they have bullied or teased someone at least once in the past year, a new survey finds. The study also found that nearly half say they have been bullied during that time. The study surveyed 43,321 teens ages 15 to 18, from 78 public and 22 private schools. It found 50 percent had “bullied, teased or taunted someone at least once,” and 47 percent had been “bullied, teased or taunted in a way that seriously upset me at least once.” The survey asked about bullying in the past 12 months: 52% of students have hit someone in anger. 28% (37% of boys, 19% of girls) say it’s OK to hit or threaten a person who angers them. “There’s a tremendous amount of anger out there,” Michael Josephson says. (Founder of the Institute of Ethics)
Victims of Cyberbullying More Likely to Suffer Depression than Perpetrators: ScienceDaily, September 2010
Young victims of cyber bullying, which occurs online or through cell phones, are more likely to suffer from depression than their tormentors, a new study finds. Researchers at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child and Human Health Development in the US looked at survey results on bullying behavior and signs of depression in 7,313 students in grades six through 10. Victims reported higher depression than cyber bullies or bully-victims, which was not found in any other form of bullying. Researchers say it unclear whether depressed kids have lower self-esteem and so are more easily bullied or the other way around.
Cyberbullying Teens and Victims More Likely to Have Psychiatric Troubles Archives of General Psychiatry, July 2010
Teens who cyberbully others through the Internet or cell phones are more likely to have both physical and psychiatric problems, and their victims are at heightened risk for behavioral difficulties, a new study finds. Researchers collected data on 2,215 Finnish teens 13 to 16 years old. The survey found that teens who were victims of cyberbullying were more likely to come from broken homes and have emotional, concentration and behavior problems. In addition, they were prone to headaches, abdominal pain, sleeping problems and not feeling safe at school, the researchers found. Cyberbullies were also more prone to suffer from emotional and behavior problems, according to the survey.
Bullying And Being Bullied Linked To Suicide In Children International Journal of Adolescent Medical Health; July 2008
Being a victim or perpetrator of school bullying, the most common type of school violence, has been frequently associated with a broad spectrum of behavioral, emotional, and social problems. According to international studies, bullying is common, and affects up to 54 percent of children. Researchers at Yale School of Medicine reviewed studies from 13 different countries and found signs of a connection between bullying, being bullied. and suicide in children. Suicide is third leading cause of mortality in children and adolescents. Lead author of this report, Young-Shin Kim, M.D. said “the perpetrators who are the bullies also have an increased risk for suicidal behaviors.”
Kids with ADHD more likely to bully Linda Carroll, MSNBC, reporting on the Journal of Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, February 2008
A new study shows that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are almost four times as likely as others to be bullies. And, in an intriguing corollary, the children with ADHD symptoms were almost 10 times as likely as others to have been regular targets of bullies prior to the onset of those symptoms.
A study followed 577 children for a year. After collecting data on bullies and victims and identifying those children ADHD, there was a corollary between ADHD and bullying. Study co-author Dr. Anders Hjern, a professor in pediatric epidemiology at the University of Uppsala in Stockholm said “These kids might be making life miserable for their fellow students. Or it might turn out that the attention problems they’re exhibiting could be related to the stress of being bullied.”
Unfortunately, treating ADHD won’t remedy the bullying because drugs for the condition impact a child’s ability to focus, but not the aggression that leads to bullying, says Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry and director of the Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic at Yale University, and president of the American Psychological Association.
Bullying Tied to Sleep Problems Sleep Medicine, June 2011
Children who are aggressive and disruptive in class are more likely to have sleep-disordered breathing than well-behaved children, according to new research. Conduct problems, parent-reported bullying, and school disciplinary problems were all associated with higher scores on a measure of sleep-related breathing disorders, according to researchers. The study collected data from parents on each child’s sleep habits and asked both parents and teachers to assess behavioral concerns. The findings suggest that bullying may be prevented by paying attention to some of the unique health issues associated with aggressive behavior.
In the years of writing this blog, I have offered encouragement and hope for parents. But hope and information cannot soften the impact of this horrible statistic: The mortality rates of teens with mental disorders are 3 to 4 times more deadly than most childhood cancers, and the statistics only measure those deaths by suicide:Mental illness more deadly than cancer for teens, young adults.
Death by suicide seems especially tragic because it appears to be a choice, and while we tell ourselves that mental illness is the cause, it’s not the same as a car accident being the cause or a tumor being the cause. Unsuccessful suicide attempts are no less traumatic, like a cancer that keeps returning, because you can’t come to terms with a “maybe.” A parent is held hostage by the anticipation of loss, a relentless moment-by-moment fear that your child will attempt again in the future until they are successful. It’s an emotional ride one’s subconscious never ever forgets, and it becomes your PTSD. You can carry it quietly with you for decades, until a sneak attack, when you find yourself overreacting to a news story, a scene in a movie, or a conversation with a friend.
My PTSD ambushed me once. I was attending an evening class when suddenly a person next to me slammed down her cell phone, exclaimed “Oh my God!” and quickly grabbed up her things and dashed out. I followed to check on her and see if I could help with something. As she speed-walked to her car, she said her daughter had texted that she swallowed a poison because she was upset, but is now sorry and wants help. I got back to the classroom in shock, trembling, and completely unable to focus. It had been many years since I had received a similar message, but it felt like it had just happened again that moment.
You are not alone if you’ve ever secretly felt it would be a relief if your child ended their life, bringing peace to you both. (And you wouldn’t be a bad parent, either)
There are other kinds of “deaths” to grieve
You face a death of hope when child with a serious mental disorder that takes a long slow trajectory through addictions, high risk behaviors, and falls apart in life’s many insults. Families like ours bear witness but can’t intervene, or interventions don’t work. All we can do is wait and hope and do what we can for our child, day by day, and banish thoughts of a different future. I consoled myself with the knowledge that my child was getting by, and “getting b” was enough.
Another type of death caregivers face is the loss of their child’s “self” as they knew it, and their future as they imagined it. A mentally ill child or teen can morph from a fresh young person in a world that is wide open to them, to a scary being we don’t recognize as our own and cannot understand–a stranger, a changeling, a flame snuffed out too soon. It should not be this way. It is unfair. It is a tragedy. You start healing the grief when you are able to make the commitment to do the best you can anyway. YOU HAVE EARNED YOUR PURPLE HEART.
Any serious medical condition can devastate and traumatize a child’s family, but those with mental disorders impose a complicated trauma that’s hardly possible to resolve. The following stories are actual examples. Ask yourself: how does one be a loving responsible parent in these situations?
– When her daughter attempted suicide, an overwhelmed single mother discovered that her son had been sexually abusing and cutting her for 3 years, right under her nose. The guilt she felt was quadrupled by the guilt laid on her by others. She didn’t know how to go forward as a mother from here, after loving but failing both children.
– A teen girl attempted to hang herself in a very public place, and many people found out before her parents. The parents’ first trauma was the call from the emergency room, their second was from the shower of doubt others laid on them: Where were you? Why didn’t you help her before it got this far? What did you do to drive her to this?
– One couple devoted themselves to raising a difficult boy they adopted when he was 2. At 9, after years of problems, he sexually assaulted a playmate, and they found themselves disgusted and repulsed. The brokenhearted mother said she had long ago accepted that her boy would never be normal, but this was different. She didn’t want him anymore. She really really didn’t want him. Some parents took their troubled children to Nebraska.*
You are not alone if you’ve ever secretly wanted to give your child away. You are not alone if you’re DONE. (And you would not be a bad parent for thinking this.)
Consciously keep the good things alive. Display photos of the real child you know or knew, the one without the brain problems. Keep their writing or artwork or tests scored A+. Other parents experiencing a loss do this, whether the losses are from death by disease, or death of self due to brain damage from an accident. Speak often of the good things they were or are, as any proud parent might, keep the memories alive.
Get out of your trance and take yourself back to here and now. When you notice yourself caught up in a train of thought and obsessing on your fear or paranoia, get back in the room—get back to driving that car or attending that meeting or straightening the house. Get back to noticing the people you love, get back to making those helpful plans. Central to the philosophy of dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is the concept of “Mindfulness.”
Remember this wisdom: take one day at a time. You can handle one day, you can keep cool, do what must be done, feel accomplishment, in one day. Don’t think farther ahead. Since you are the linchpin, the one holding up the world, you probably don’t have the luxury of taking a break, and may have to hold things together until there is time for your own healing. The one-day-at-a-time approach is imperative.
When you’re leg is broken, you need a crutch. When you’re heart and mind are broken, use the “crutch” of a medication for depression, anxiety, or sleep. Do other healing things for yourself, whether exercise or therapy or asking for comfort from friends. Acknowledge your wounds and admit this is too much handle. You have earned your scars from bravery, so wear them as the badges of a hero.
A tragic event does not mean a tragic life. I know a mother whose son completed suicide as a young adult in his 20’s. She seemed remarkably cheerful and at peace with this. She spoke lovingly of him often, and her email address comprised his birth date. She continually did her grief work, was active in a suicide bereavement group, and often offered to visit with families facing such a loss.
* In the United States in 2008, the state of Nebraska enacted a “Safe Haven” law to reduce the tragedy of infant child abuse and neglect. The law allowed anyone to anonymously leave a child at a hospital with the promise that child would be cared for. But something unexpected happened. Parents from around the nation drove hundreds and hundreds of miles to leave their troubled older children instead. Nebraskans eventually amended the law with strict age limits for infants only.
Scientists worldwide have been studying the effect of religion and spirituality on mental health and addiction recovery in children, teens, and adults. Below are research findings that show religion and spirituality improve adult and adolescent mental health, including recovery from mental crises and substance abuse, when the spiritual approach carries messages of love, kindness, tolerance, and moral responsibility. But when religion had a punitive or unforgiving message to those with mental or substance abuse disorders, the results were disheartening: a worsening of psychotic symptoms; inability to sustain recovery from substance abuse; and physical abuse.
If you look at the dates of some of these studies, you’ll see that researchers have been measuring of the value of spirituality for mental health and addiction for ~30 years, and results have consistently shown statistically significant positive benefits.
Below are summaries research reports–clinical writing that can be difficult to wade through if you’re not a mental health geek, so key findings and conclusions are highlighted in brown to make it easier to scan.
God Imagery and Treatment Outcomes Examined Currier JM, Foster JD, Abernathy AD, et al. God imagery and affective outcomes in a spiritually integrative inpatient program. [Published online ahead of print May 5, 2017]. Psychiatry Res. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2017.05.003.
Patients’ ability to derive comfort from their religious faith and/or spirituality emerged as a salient mediating pathway between their God imagery at the start of treatment and positive affect at discharge, a recent study found. Drawing on a combination of qualitative and quantitative information with a religiously heterogeneous sample of 241 adults who completed a spiritually-integrative inpatient program over a 2-year period, researchers tested direct and indirect associations between imagery of how God views oneself, religious comforts and strains, and affective outcomes.
Findings — Analyses revealed that patients generally experienced reductions in negative emotion in God imagery over the course of their admissions.
When God Is Part of Therapy Tara Parker Pope, March 2011, New York Times
Faith-based therapy is growing in popularity, reports Psychology Today, as more patients look for counselors who can discuss their problems and goals from a religious frame of reference.
Studies show that people prefer counselors who share their religious beliefs and support, rather than challenge, their faith. Religious people often complain that secular therapists see their faith as a problem or a symptom, rather than as a conviction to be respected and incorporated into the therapeutic dialogue, a concern that is especially pronounced among the elderly and twenty-somethings. According to a nationwide survey by the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC), 83 percent of Americans believe their spiritual faith and religious beliefs are closely tied to their state of mental and emotional health. Three-fourths say it’s important for them to see a professional counselor who integrates their values and beliefs into the counseling process.
The problem for many patients in therapy is that many patients are far more religious than their therapists.
Nearly three-fourths of Americans say their whole approach to life is based on religion. But only 32 percent of psychiatrists, 33 percent of clinical psychologists and 46 percent of clinical social workers feel the same. The majority of traditional counselor training programs have no courses dealing with spiritual matters.
“[Spirituality] enables neurotic conflicts typical for adolescence to be more easily overcome.”
The influence of religious moral beliefs on adolescents’ mental stability. Pajević I, Hasanović M, Delić A., : Psychiatry Danub. 2007 Sep;19(3):173-83
University Clinical Centre Tuzla, Trnovac b.b, 75 000 Tuzla, Bosnia & Herzegovina. email@example.com.
This study included 240 mentally and physically healthy male and female adolescents attending a high school, who were divided into groups equalized by gender (male and female), age (younger 15, older 18 years); school achievement (very good, average student); behaviour (excellent, average); family structure (complete family with satisfactory family relations), and level of exposure to psycho-social stress (they were not exposed to specific traumatizing events). Subjects were assessed with regard to the level of belief in some basic ethical principles that arise from religious moral values.
Conclusions — A higher index of religious moral beliefs in adolescents enables better control of impulses, providing better mental health stability. It enables neurotic conflicts typical for adolescence to be more easily overcome. It also causes healthier reactions to external stimuli. A higher index of religious moral beliefs of young people provides a healthier and more efficient mechanism of anger control and aggression control. It enables transformation of that psychical energy into neutral energy which supports the growth and development of personality, which is expressed through socially acceptable behaviour. In this way, it helps growth, development and socialization of the personality, leading to the improvement in mental health.
A growing body of multidisciplinary research documents the associations between religious involvement and mental health outcomes, yet the causal mechanisms linking them are not well understood. Ellison and his colleagues (2001) tested the life stress paradigm linking religious involvement to adult well-being and distress. This study looked at adolescents, a particularly understudied group in religious research. Analysis of data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) reveals that religious effects on adolescent mental health are complex. While religious involvement did not appear to prevent the occurrence of stressors or buffer their impact, some support was found for the hypothesis that religion facilitates coping by enhancing social and psychological resources.
Study Links Religion and Mental Health David H. Rosmarin and Kenneth Pargament, Bowling Green State University, Ohio, (IsraelNN.com) 2008
A series of research studies – known as the JPSYCH program – reveals that traditional religious beliefs and practices are protective against anxiety and depression among Jews. The research indicates that frequency of prayer, synagogue attendance, and religious study, and positive beliefs about the Divine are associated with markedly decreased levels of anxiety and with higher levels of happiness. “In this day and age, there is a lot to worry about,” Rosmarin notes, “and the practice of religion may help people to maintain equanimity and perspective.”
The Once-Forgotten Factor in Psychiatry: Research Findings on Religious Commitment and Mental Health (excerpt) David B. Larson, M.D., M.S.P.H., Susan S. Larson, M.A.T., and Harold G. Koenig, M.D., M.H.Sc., Psychiatric Times. Vol. 17 No. 10, October 1, 2000
“The data from many of the studies conducted to date are both sufficiently robust and tantalizing to warrant continued and expanded clinical investigations.”
Treatment of Drug Abuse
The lack of religious/spiritual commitment stands out as a risk factor for drug abuse, according to past reviews of published studies. Benson (1992) reviewed nearly 40 studies documenting that people with stronger religious commitment are less likely to become involved in substance abuse.
Gorsuch and Butler (1976) found that lack of religious commitment was a predictor of drug abuse. The researchers wrote: “Whenever religion is used in analysis, it predicts those who have not used an illicit drug regardless of whether the religious variable is defined in terms of membership, active participation, religious upbringing or the meaningfulness of religion as viewed by the person himself.”
Lorch and Hughes (1985), as cited by the National Institute for Healthcare Research (1999), surveyed almost 14,000 youths and found that the analysis of six measures of religious commitment and eight measures of substance abuse revealed religious commitment was linked with less drug abuse. The measure of “importance of religion” was the best predictor in indicating lack of substance abuse. The authors stated, “This implies that the controls operating here are deeply internalized values and norms rather than fear or peer pressure.”
Developing and drawing upon spiritual resources can also make a difference in improving drug treatment. For instance, 45% of participants in a religious treatment program for opium addiction were still drug-free one year later, compared to only 5% of participants in a nonreligious public health service hospital treatment program-a nine-fold difference(Desmond and Maddux, 1981).
Confirming other studies showing reduced depression and substance abuse, a study of 1,900 female twins found significantly lower rates of major depression, smoking and alcohol abuse among those who were more religious (Kendler et al., 1997). Since these twins had similar genetic makeup, the potential effects of nurture versus nature stood out more clearly.
“lack of religious commitment was a predictor of drug abuse”
Treatment of Alcohol Abuse
Religious/spiritual commitment predicts fewer problems with alcohol (Hardesty and Kirby, 1995). People lacking a strong religious commitment are more at risk to abuse alcohol (Gartner et al., 1991). Religious involvement tends to be low among people diagnosed for substance abuse treatment (Brizer, 1993).
A study of the religious lives of alcoholics found that 89% of alcoholics had lost interest in religion during their teen-age years, whereas 48% among the community control group had increased interest in religion, and 32% had remained unchanged (Larson and Wilson, 1980).
A relationship between religious or spiritual commitment and the non-use or moderate use of alcohol has been documented. Amoateng and Bahr (1986) reported that, whether or not a religious tradition specifically proscribes alcohol use, those who are active in a religious group consumed substantially less alcohol than those who are not active.
Religion or spirituality is also often a strong force in [addiction] recovery. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) invokes a Higher Power to help alcoholics recover from addiction. Those who participate in AA are more likely to remain abstinent after inpatient or outpatient treatmen t(Montgomery et al., 1995).
“…adolescents [who were] frequent church-goers with high spiritual support had the lowest scores on the Beck Depression Inventory.”
Suicide Prevention – Surging suicide rates plague the United States, especially among adolescents. One in seven deaths among those 15 to 19 years of age results from suicide.
One study of 525 adolescents found that religious commitment significantly reduced risk of suicide (Stein et al., 1992).
A study of adolescents found that frequent church-goers with high spiritual support had the lowest scores on the Beck Depression Inventory (Wright et al., 1993). High school students of either gender who attended church infrequently and had low spiritual support had the highest rates of depression, often at clinically significant levels.
How significantly might religious commitment prevent suicide? One early large-scale study found that people who did not attend church were four times more likely to kill themselves than were frequent church-goers (Comstock and Partridge, 1972). Stack (1983) found rates of church attendance predicted suicide rates more effectively than any other evaluated factor, including unemployment. He proposed several ways in which religion might help prevent suicide, including enhancing self-esteem through a belief that one is loved by God and improving moral accountability, which reduces the appeal of potentially self-destructive behavior.
Many psychiatric inpatients indicate that spiritual/religious beliefs and practices help them to cope. Lindgren and Coursey (1995) reported 83% of psychiatric patients felt that spiritual belief had a positive impact on their illness through the comfort it provided and the feelings of being cared for and not being alone it engendered.
Potential Harmful Effects
“Psychiatry still needs more research and clearer hypotheses in differentiating between the supportive use of religion/spirituality in finding hope, meaning, and a sense of being valued and loved versus harmful beliefs that may manipulate or condemn.”
Alcoholics often report negative experiences with religion and hold concepts of God that are punitive, rather than loving and forgiving (Gorsuch, 1993).
Bowman (1989). In assessing multiple personality disorder, children in rigid religious families, whose harsh parenting practices border on abuse, harbor negative images of God. Josephson (1993). Individual psychopathology is linked with families whose enmeshment, rigidity and emotional harshness were supported by enlisting spiritual precepts.
Sheehan and Kroll (1990). Of 52 seriously mentally ill hospitalized patients diagnosed with major depression, schizophrenia, manic episode, personality disorder and anxiety disorder, almost one-fourth of [psychiatric patients] believed their sinful thoughts or acts may have contributed to the development of their illness. Without the psychiatrist inquiring about potential religious concerns, these beliefs would remain unaddressed, potentially hindering treatment until discovered and resolved. Collaboration with hospital chaplains or clergy may help in some of these instances of spiritual problems or distress.
Religious/spiritual commitment may enhance recovery from depression, serious mental or physical illness, and substance abuse; help curtail suicide; and reduce health risks. More longitudinal research with better multidimensional measures will help further clarify the roles of these factors and how they are beneficial or harmful.
What recovery looks like – A person with a mental or emotional disorder who is in “recovery” can look and act like anyone else. They have:
a steady job or in school
a place to live
a proper diet
regular mental health check-ins.
Recovery is maintained when your child can pay attention to themselves and notice if their symptoms are starting up, and then take action to stop the symptoms. You teach them what to look for, and how to do a personal check-in. It’s just as if they are monitoring any other problem in order to stay healthy such as: blood sugar, body temperature weight gain or loss, digestive system function (gut microbes). In mental disorders, their signs and symptoms are not steady. Anything can lead them from “OK” to “out of control” in an instant, and problems can last minutes to weeks to months.
What your child will need to sustain recovery as an adult:
INSIGHT + STABILITY + RESILIENCE
INSIGHT– self awareness
Insight allows a child to recognize they have a problem, and choose to act to avoid the problem. If insight is not possible, they need a toolbox of options that help them to respond appropriately, instead of reacting to chaotic messages in their brain. Knowing and admitting they have a problem, or knowing techniques for avoiding problems, are very powerful skills they need as adults.
STABILITY – fewer falls or softer falls
Your child is like a boat that’s easier to tip over than most other boats; any little wave will capsize them, and everyday life is full of waves, big and small. Your job is to notice when the troubled child is starting to capsize and show them how to right the boat, or if that doesn’t work, how to use the lifesaver. Eventually, your child will learn how to sense when trouble is coming on, avoid the thing that causes problems, and ask others for help.
Ask for Help.
RESILIENCE – bounce back when they fall
Troubled children have a much harder time bouncing back from problems. They have extreme responses to simple disappointments like breaking a toy, or poor grades, or something as serious as the parents’ divorce. Some even fall apart in joyous times because the emotional energy is too much! You must be acutely aware of this–they will not get back on track by themselves. Don’t worry that helping them will spoil them or “enable” them. Eventually they will learn from you how you do it.
“…We are all born with an innate capacity for resilience, by which we are able to develop social competence, problem-solving skills, a critical consciousness, autonomy, and a sense of purpose.”
“Several research studies followed individuals over the course of a lifespan and consistently documented that between half and two-thirds of children growing up in families with mentally ill, alcoholic, abusive, or criminally involved parents, or in poverty-stricken or war-torn communities, do overcome the odds and turn a life trajectory of risk into one that manifests “resilience,” the term used to describe a set of qualities that foster a process of successful adaptation and transformation despite risk and adversity…”http://www.athealth.com