Any parent knows: An evening can go to heck in a matter of minutes.
Our 9-year-old daughter pipes up suddenly that she needs a pink dress to play Sleeping Beauty in class the next morning. It has to be pink. It has to be pretty. And she needs it now!
Any sort of reasoning—like the suggestion to wear a wedding-worthy yellow dress—won’t work. Frustrations explode into shouting, timeouts and all-too-familiar rants of “this family sucks,” followed by heartbreaking rounds of “I hate myself!”
The next morning, when nerves calm, the yellow dress is perfectly fine and our daughter cheerfully chatters about Belle’s ball gown in Beauty and the Beast.
The difference? The anxiety attack is over.
Sneaky and insidious, anxiety seizes our daughter like a riptide pulling her out to sea. Her negative thoughts build like a tsunami, and it’s useless to swim against them with problem-solving logic.
Like a real riptide, the only escape seems to be diagonally. A surprise dose of humor—tough to summon in the midst of a blowup—can spring her free. As one therapist explained, “You can’t process anger and humor at the same time.”
It’s taken years of keen observation and research, plus the support of educators and psychologists to help our kids, ages 9 to 13, cope with mental health issues that also include Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and depression.
Recognizing that something isn’t right and pursuing help isn’t an easy journey. But it’s necessary. In the same way you’d pursue cures and solutions to manage chronic physical conditions like cancer and diabetes for your child, you have to advocate for your child’s emotional well-being. It requires being proactive, persistent and patient.
“If you can intervene early and get proper treatment, the prognosis is so much better,” says Teri Brister, who directs the basic education program of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
KNOW THE SIGNS
“One of the most difficult-to-recognize issues is anxiety,” says John Duby, director of Akron Children’s Hospitals Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. “(Children) won’t say, ‘Hey, you know, I’m worried.’ You have to be tuned in.”
All-consuming worries—about parents’ safety, bullies or natural disasters, for instance—can look like a lack of focus at first. Some kids ask frequent questions about “what’s next” for meals or activities. Changes to the daily routine (a substitute teacher or a visit to a new doctor) can trigger headaches, stomachaches or a sleepless night.
At its most extreme, anxiety induces panic attacks. Kids break into sweats, have trouble breathing and feel their heart racing.
Depression may cause similar symptoms to anxiety with headaches, stomachaches, not being able to sleep or sleeping more than usual. “They may withdraw socially,” says Duby. Kids may head to their room after school and not emerge until morning. Some kids are constantly irritable and angry.
“We often think depression doesn’t happen in children, but it does,” he says.
Step 1: Trust your instincts
If you’re worried about your child’s mood, trust your instincts as a parent, recommends Brister.
The red flags of mental health disorders tend to pop up during school years when children have to navigate academic expectations, make friends and increase responsibilities at home.
“You have to look for (behavior) patterns,” says Brister. These can include impulsive acts, hyperactivity, outbursts, an inability to follow directions or recurring ailments that may impair how the child performs in class, extracurricular activities or simply sitting through dinner with the family.
Most concerned parents start with a visit to the pediatrician. (PETER’S EDIT For Australian parents your family GP is a good place to start) The family physician can help you analyze symptoms and understand whether there might be an underlying condition such as food allergies or a chronic lack of sleep.
Step 2: Seek professional help
(PETER’S EDIT: In Australia a referral from a GP to a psychologist via a mental health care plan or ATAPS will ensure an informed, appropriate and timely assessment. If the issue is developmental, a referral to a paediatrician may be preferred or if your GP has a serious concern a referral to a child psychiatrist may be made. Wait times for each option should be relatively short in the private sector.)
When our son was 5, we sought testing for ADHD with a referral from our pediatrician. Unfortunately, we couldn’t even get on a waiting list for a psychology appointment. We were told the list had backed up to a two-year wait, so it was eliminated. We had to call weekly and hope for an opening.
When our daughter needed help as her anxiety escalated, it took a school district triage nurse to get us an appointment with a psychiatric nurse.
This is, unfortunately, not an uncommon scenario for parents. You need to use all the leverage you have to access experts in the school system or mental health clinics to help with your situation. Stay persistent and be pleasant rather than pushy.
And when you do get an appointment, make the most of it by consistently tracking the concerns you have about your child’s behavior and putting them in writing for the physician to read. Have a list of questions ready, and always ask about additional resources you can tap into, from support groups to books.
Mental health practitioners will also be gathering resources and information about your child from report cards, checklists and questionnaires. These can help pinpoint whether a child has anxiety, depression, ADHD, bipolar disorder, is on the autism spectrum or may have a combination of these. “It allows us to have a more objective view,” says Duby.
Step 3: Find your normal
Once there is a diagnosis, families can decide how to move forward. That might mean trying medications, working with a psychologist or setting up an Individualized Education Program (IEP) at school.
Additional services that may help include occupational therapy, which can identify specific movements, such as swinging, spinning or brushing outer limbs with a soft brush that may help your child’s brain process and integrate sensory information.
These tools and approaches can help families be proactive about preventing and managing mental meltdowns. It’s also essential to help children feel a sense of belonging at school and in community groups. Families need to build up their children’s strengths so they have the self-esteem and confidence to move forward, says Duby.
And parents should stay on top of the situation, watching for changes in behavior and mood, especially as children get older, says Brister.
Hormones may help or worsen conditions, which makes it important to have a diagnosis and support network before the teen years hit.
“I can’t emphasize enough how essential it is to recognize symptoms early and treat them,” she says.
SIGNS OF DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY
Signs in children may differ from the symptoms we commonly associate with adults who have the disorders. Depression in kids may look like irritability, anger and self-criticism, says the National Alliance on Mental Illness. It could be as subtle as her making less eye contact with you than in the past.
School performance is another important indicator. Grades can drop off dramatically; students may also visit the school nurse more frequently with vague complaints of illness.
Children who suffer from an anxiety disorder may experience fear, nervousness and shyness, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. They may worry excessively about things like grades and relationships with family and friends. They may strive for perfection and seek constant approval.
HOW TO CALM IT DOWN
Whether a child has mental health struggles or not, emotions inevitably boil over—especially as preteen dramas escalate. Here are ways to help de-escalate the situation and restore calm to your family life.
• Keep your body language non-threatening and stay as even-keeled as possible. Don’t get in the child’s face or use a raised voice.
• Teach kids how to breathe slowly through the nose, then exhale gently through the mouth as if cooling a hot bowl of soup.
• Create an “away space,” a place to cool down and take a break. Consider a quiet nook in a bedroom, a spot on the stairs for kids who don’t like separation or a backyard corner for those who find comfort in nature.
• Let kids know they can’t hit others, but it’s OK to punch a pillow or punching bag or to squeeze putty or a squishy toy.
• Figure out what’s physically comforting—feeling the softness of a blanket or stuffed animal, nuzzling the fur of a family pet or piling under heavy blankets.
• Listen to favorite tunes on a music player.
• Provide a journal for writing out frustrations or doodling when the words won’t come.
• When emotions simmer down, sit side by side to talk through how the situation could have been handled differently and work on solutions together.
(PETER’S EDIT: AUSTRALIA:
HeadSpace: headspace National Youth Mental Health Foundation Ltd is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing under the Youth Mental Health Initiative Program. A great resource for parents and teens.
HealthyChildren.org from the American Academy of Pediatrics has a section dedicated to “Emotional Problems.” Parents can tap into great information on how to help their child. Audio segments recorded by experts in the field can be used as a launching point for family discussions.
TheBalancedMindFoundation.org, founded by the mother of a daughter with bipolar disorder, provides help for families. Online, private support groups offer 24/7-support and online forums are a way for parents to connect.
WorryWiseKids.org, a service of the Children’s and Adult Center for OCD and Anxiety, has a wealth of information about the different types of anxiety disorders children can have, how to understand them and how to seek treatment for them.
The recent controversy over the still-developing DSM-5 — that compendium of mental disorders the media love to call, inappropriately, “The Bible of Psychiatry” –has gotten me thinking about loneliness. Now, thankfully, nobody has seriously proposed including loneliness in the DSM-5. Indeed, loneliness is usually thought of as simply an unpleasant part of life — one of the “slings and arrows” that pierce almost all of us from time to time. Loneliness, in some ways, remains enmeshed in a web of literary and cultural clichés, born of such works as Nathaniel West’s darkly comic novel, Miss Lonelyhearts, and the Beatles’ whimsical anthem, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
But loneliness turns out to be a serious matter. And as psychiatry debates the diagnostic minutiae of DSM-5, all of us may need to remind ourselves that millions in this country struggle against the downward tug of loneliness. Yet even among health care professionals, few seem aware that loneliness is closely linked with numerous emotional and physical ills, particular among the elderly and infirm.
It’s easy to assume that loneliness is simply a matter of mind and mood. Yet recent evidence suggests that loneliness may injure the body in surprising ways. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine studied the risk of coronary heart disease over a 19-year period, in a community sample of men and women. The study found that among women, high degrees of loneliness were associated with increased risk of heart disease, even after controlling for age, race, marital status, depression and several other confounding variables. (In an email message to me, the lead author, Dr. Rebecca C. Thurston, PhD, speculated that the male subjects might have been more reluctant to acknowledge their feelings of loneliness).
Similarly, Dr. Dara Sorkin and her colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, found that for every increase in the level of loneliness in a sample of 180 older adults, there was a threefold increase in the odds of having heart disease. Conversely, among individuals who felt they had companionship or social support, the likelihood of having heart disease decreased.
The young, of course, are far from immune to loneliness. Researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark studied loneliness in a population of adolescent boys with autism spectrum disorders (an area of great controversy in the proposed DSM-5 criteria). More than a fifth of the sample described themselves as “often or always” feeling lonely—a finding that seems to run counter to the notion that those with autism are emotionally disconnected from other people. Furthermore, the study found that the more social support these boys received, the lower their degree of loneliness. We have no cure for autism in adolescents–but the remedy for loneliness in these kids may be as close as the nearest friend.
And lest there be any doubt that loneliness has far ranging effects on the health of the body, consider the intriguing findings from Dr. S.W. Cole and colleagues, at the UCLA School of Medicine. These researchers looked at levels of gene activity in the white blood cells of individuals with either high or low levels of loneliness. Subjects with high levels of subjective social isolation—basically, loneliness — showed evidence of an over-active inflammatory response. These same lonely subjects showed reduced activity in genes that normally suppress inflammation. Such gene effects could explain reports of higher rates of inflammatory disease in those experiencing loneliness.
Could inflammatory changes, in turn, explain the correlation between loneliness and heart disease? Inflammation is known to play an important role in coronary artery disease. But loneliness by itself may be just one domino in the chain of causation. According to Dr. Heather S. Lett and colleagues at Duke University Medical Center, the perception of poor social support — in effect, loneliness — is a risk factor for development, or worsening, of clinical depression. Depression may in turn bring about inflammatory changes in the heart that lead to frank heart disease. This complicated pathway is still speculative, but plausible.
Loneliness, of course, is not synonymous with “being alone.” Many individuals who live alone do not feel “lonely.” Indeed, some seem to revel in their aloneness. Perhaps this is what theologian Paul Tillich had in mind when he observed that language “… has created the word “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word “solitude” to express the glory of being alone.” Conversely, some people feel “alone” or disconnected from others, even when surrounded with people.
Let’s admit that not everybody is capable of experiencing the “glory of being alone” or of transforming loneliness into “solitude.” So what can a socially-isolated person do to avoid loneliness and its associated health problems? Joining a local support group can help decrease isolation; allow friendships to form; and give the lonely person an opportunity both to receive and to provide help. This reciprocity can bolster the lonely person’s ego and improve overall well-being. Support groups geared to particular medical conditions can also help reduce disease-related complications. Although there are always risks in going “on line” to find support, Daily Strength appears to be a legitimate and helpful website for locating support groups of all types, including those for loneliness. Psych Central also provides opportunities to exchange ideas and “connect” with many individuals who feel isolated or alone. For those who feel lonely even in the midst of friends, individual psychotherapy may be helpful, since this paradoxical feeling often stems from a fear of “getting close” to others.
No, loneliness is not a disease or disorder. It certainly shouldn’t appear in the DSM-5 — but it should be on our minds, as a serious public health problem. Fortunately, the “treatment” may be as simple as reaching out to another human being, with compassion and understanding.
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I have continued to receive a number of requests by email and on Twitter about Borderline Personality Disorder, its name, its presentation, its treatment and its psycho-genesis. Below is a brief post which I think covers most of these questions in outline form. I am open to suggestions as to which, if any areas readers would like to discuss in more detail. A small collection of books on BPD which I recommend to patients, carers, significant others and counsellors can be found here, most with reader reviews. I would be happy to hear of others.
The term “borderline” was first used by early psychiatrists to describe people who were thought to be on the “border” between diagnoses. At the time, the system for diagnosing mental illness was far less sophisticated than it is today, and “borderline” referred to individuals who did not fit neatly into the two broad categories of mental disorder: psychosis or neurosis.
Today, far more is known about BPD, and it is no longer thought of as being related to psychotic disorders (and the term “neurosis” is no longer used in our diagnostic system). Instead, BPD is recognized as a disorder characterized by intense emotional experiences and instability in relationships and behavior.
Many experts are now calling for BPD to be renamed, because the term “borderline” is outdated and because, unfortunately, the name has been used in a stigmatizing way in the past. Suggestions for the new name have included: “Emotion Dysregulation Disorder,” Unstable Personality Disorder,” and “Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.”
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a serious mental illness characterized by pervasive instability in moods, interpersonal relationships, self-image, and behavior. This instability often disrupts family and work life, long-term planning, and the individual’s sense of self-identity. Originally thought to be at the “borderline” of psychosis, people with BPD suffer from a disorder of emotion regulation. While less well known than schizophrenia or bipolar disorder (manic-depressive illness), BPD is more common, affecting 2 percent of adults, mostly young women.1 There is a high rate of self-injury without suicide intent, as well as a significant rate of suicide attempts and completed suicide in severe cases.2,3 Patients often need extensive mental health services, and account for 20 percent of psychiatric hospitalizations.4 Yet, with help, many improve over time and are eventually able to lead productive lives.
While a person with depression or bipolar disorder typically endures the same mood for weeks, a person with BPD may experience intense bouts of anger, depression, and anxiety that may last only hours, or at most a day.5 These may be associated with episodes of impulsive aggression, self-injury, and drug or alcohol abuse. Distortions in cognition and sense of self can lead to frequent changes in long-term goals, career plans, jobs, friendships, gender identity, and values. Sometimes people with BPD view themselves as fundamentally bad, or unworthy. They may feel unfairly misunderstood or mistreated, bored, empty, and have little idea who they are. Such symptoms are most acute when people with BPD feel isolated and lacking in social support, and may result in frantic efforts to avoid being alone.
People with BPD often have highly unstable patterns of social relationships. While they can develop intense but stormy attachments, their attitudes towards family, friends, and loved ones may suddenly shift from idealization (great admiration and love) to devaluation (intense anger and dislike). Thus, they may form an immediate attachment and idealize the other person, but when a slight separation or conflict occurs, they switch unexpectedly to the other extreme and angrily accuse the other person of not caring for them at all. Even with family members, individuals with BPD are highly sensitive to rejection, reacting with anger and distress to such mild separations as a vacation, a business trip, or a sudden change in plans. These fears of abandonment seem to be related to difficulties feeling emotionally connected to important persons when they are physically absent, leaving the individual with BPD feeling lost and perhaps worthless. Suicide threats and attempts may occur along with anger at perceived abandonment and disappointments.
People with BPD exhibit other impulsive behaviors, such as excessive spending, binge eating and risky sex. BPD often occurs together with other psychiatric problems, particularly bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and other personality disorders.
Treatments for BPD have improved in recent years. Group and individual psychotherapy are at least partially effective for many patients. Within the past 15 years, a new psychosocial treatment termed dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) was developed specifically to treat BPD, and this technique has looked promising in treatment studies.6 Pharmacological treatments are often prescribed based on specific target symptoms shown by the individual patient. Antidepressant drugs and mood stabilizers may be helpful for depressed and/or labile mood. Antipsychotic drugs may also be used when there are distortions in thinking.7
Recent Research Findings
Although the cause of BPD is unknown, both environmental and genetic factors are thought to play a role in predisposing patients to BPD symptoms and traits. Studies show that many, but not all individuals with BPD report a history of abuse, neglect, or separation as young children.8 Forty to 71 percent of BPD patients report having been sexually abused, usually by a non-caregiver.9 Researchers believe that BPD results from a combination of individual vulnerability to environmental stress, neglect or abuse as young children, and a series of events that trigger the onset of the disorder as young adults. Adults with BPD are also considerably more likely to be the victim of violence, including rape and other crimes. This may result from both harmful environments as well as impulsivity and poor judgement in choosing partners and lifestyles.
NIMH-funded neuroscience research is revealing brain mechanisms underlying the impulsivity, mood instability, aggression, anger, and negative emotion seen in BPD. Studies suggest that people predisposed to impulsive aggression have impaired regulation of the neural circuits that modulate emotion.10 The amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure deep inside the brain, is an important component of the circuit that regulates negative emotion. In response to signals from other brain centers indicating a perceived threat, it marshals fear and arousal. This might be more pronounced under the influence of drugs like alcohol, or stress. Areas in the front of the brain (pre-frontal area) act to dampen the activity of this circuit. Recent brain imaging studies show that individual differences in the ability to activate regions of the prefrontal cerebral cortex thought to be involved in inhibitory activity predict the ability to suppress negative emotion.11
Serotonin, norepinephrine and acetylcholine are among the chemical messengers in these circuits that play a role in the regulation of emotions, including sadness, anger, anxiety, and irritability. Drugs that enhance brain serotonin function may improve emotional symptoms in BPD. Likewise, mood-stabilizing drugs that are known to enhance the activity of GABA, the brain’s major inhibitory neurotransmitter, may help people who experience BPD-like mood swings. Such brain-based vulnerabilities can be managed with help from behavioral interventions and medications, much like people manage susceptibility to diabetes or high blood pressure.7
Studies that translate basic findings about the neural basis of temperament, mood regulation, and cognition into clinically relevant insights which bear directly on BPD represent a growing area of NIMH-supported research. Research is also underway to test the efficacy of combining medications with behavioral treatments like DBT, and gauging the effect of childhood abuse and other stress in BPD on brain hormones. Data from the first prospective, longitudinal study of BPD, which began in the early 1990s, is expected to reveal how treatment affects the course of the illness. It will also pinpoint specific environmental factors and personality traits that predict a more favorable outcome. The Institute is also collaborating with a private foundation to help attract new researchers to develop a better understanding and better treatment for BPD.
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7Siever LJ, Koenigsberg HW. The frustrating no-mans-land of borderline personality disorder. Cerebrum, The Dana Forum on Brain Science, 2000; 2(4).
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Bernstein, PhD, David P., Iscan, MD, Cuneyt, Maser, PhD, Jack, Board of Directors, Association for Research in Personality Disorder, & Board of Directors, International Society for the Study of Personality Disorders. “Opinions of personality disorder experts regarding the DSM-IV Personality Disorders classification system.” Journal of Personality Disorders, 21: 536-551, October 2007.