Alternative Approaches for Treating Children and Teens with Mental Disorders

By Mary Braud, M.D.

Too many parents face the dilemma of medicating their children. Problems with school, difficult behavior at home, depression, anxiety, and suicidal behavior are only some of the reasons that prompt parents to seek professional help for their children. When needing this kind of help, most parents are overwhelmed and don’t know how to proceed.

Alternative health care providers are more likely to pursue finding a cause.

The purpose of this article is two-fold. It is meant to provide parents with an explanation regarding how to obtain a mental health evaluation and to serve as an introduction to alternative treatments for children or teens with learning, behavioral, or emotional disorders.

Mental health assessments can be conducted by psychiatrists, psychologists, and other therapists. While most therapists are trained to work with people with a variety of conditions, some decline to pronounce diagnoses and refer patients to other professionals if this information is required. Some primary care providers, such as pediatricians and family physicians, treat children and teens with emotional or behavioral problems. This is typically not an area of expertise for such providers, and they may lack the experience needed to make an accurate diagnosis. While it may be necessary to begin treatment under the care of a primary care provider, a mental health evaluation should be obtained whenever possible.

Even with the help of a psychiatrist or psychologist, it can be difficult to obtain a clear answer regarding a diagnosis. There are no definitive laboratory tests used in psychiatry to guide this process. Instead, mental and emotional disorders are diagnosed based upon the presence of certain symptoms, their severity, and duration, in addition to other criteria. These criteria and symptoms can be interpreted differently by different providers, a fact that leads to great confusion for families at times.  Conventional providers do not aggressively seek to determine the cause of any mental or emotional symptoms. Many mental disorders are presumed to have a genetic link, so it is expected to have the same disorder appear in subsequent generations. Alternative health care providers are more likely to pursue finding a cause, whether it be a nutritional deficit, hormonal imbalance, or gastrointestinal dysfunction.

Conventional mental health treatment includes both medication and psychosocial treatments or therapy. Medications alone are generally insufficient to produce lasting and substantial changes in behavior, thoughts, or feelings. Sometimes, the benefits of therapy are passed over by families who are unaware of its potential to influence change. Finding the right therapist to help your family can be complicated, however. Get references from people you trust. Be prepared to interview any your child or teen to meet with them. Ask about their approach, get to know their style by meeting them in person, and be certain you feel comfortable before beginning treatment. Therapy, by its nature, involves change and thus may not always be comfortable. It should not be confrontational, however. If you feel you are being pushed to do things that do not fit for your family, seek help elsewhere. Main stream mental health professionals are typically unaware of the benefits of alternative and complementary treatments. Some are opposed to their use, and this can create conflict for families who want to avoid or minimize the use of medication. This is unfortunate for both families and children. While much remains to be done in order to prove the effectiveness of alternative treatments, there are effective alternatives that are safe and well-tolerated. Because information and access to professionals who are knowledgeable is limited, it is parents who must ultimately decide whether to utilize an alternative form of treatment. To be avoided are those providers of alternative care who insist their therapy is the only treatment, those who claim to help every patient, or those who insist that other therapies cannot be used simultaneously.

The field of nutrition has much to offer in the way of alternative and complementary treatments for emotional and behavioral problems. At The Center, treatment with nutrition is done with the guidance of laboratory assessment. This is ideal because treatment can be targeted to an individual’s specific needs. Experts in the field of nutrition know that individual requirements for nutrients can vary widely. Levels of nutrients can vary from one person to another or even, over time, as a result of differences in absorption, metabolism, utilization, and excretion.

The nutrient that is most widely studied and likely to be of help in more conditions than any other is omega-3 fatty acids. These fats are critical for brain development and are essential, meaning they must be obtained in the diet. Most Americans do not consume enough, and it safe to presume a deficiency for anyone who does not eat fish often or take supplements. This affects American children from the womb, since their mothers are also deficient. The amounts used in treatment studies range widely. What seems clear from this research is that higher doses may be needed to obtain noticeable improvement in a short time, and this may play a role in those studies that don’t show positive results. The brain competes with every other cell in the body for these fats when they are included in the diet. Higher doses satisfy the body’s hunger for them more rapidly. Improvements in behavior or mood will appear only when adequate amounts in the brain have accumulated.

Iron is another nutrient that may produce significant improvement when there is evidence of deficiency. In a study of children presenting at a pediatric clinic, iron deficiency was found in 84% of children with ADHD symptoms and only 18% of children who did not have behavior problems. These children did not have anemia, but they did have inadequate iron levels in their bodies. Their iron levels were assessed by measuring a protein in the blood responsible for transporting iron, which is a very sensitive measure of iron in the body. Supplementation with iron produced significant improvement in ADHD symptoms for those children with low iron levels.

Other nutrients can play a role in mental disorders. The B vitamins are all very important in brain health. The minerals zinc and magnesium are also vital for regulating moods. All nutrients work
together to allow the body to create the chemical messengers used by the brain, which are known as neurotransmitters. Many Americans do not consume adequate amounts of these nutrients from their diets, especially if they are eating processed foods and fast food.

The link between the health of the gut and the brain may not be obvious to many, but it can be very important. Hidden food allergies, abnormal numbers or types of intestinal bacteria, and changes in digestion due to stress are only some of the possible disturbances in digestive function that can play a role in brain health. It is best to consult with a healthcare provider familiar with nutritional medicine to determine if these problems are involved in your child’s behavior.

While a link between sugar consumption and behavior has not been proven, several studies now show a link between consumption of food additives and behavior. This is further evidence to support parents in making the effort to avoid processed foods as much as possible. Choose foods that come in Nature’s packages to avoid excess salt, sugar, flavorings, and preservatives. Whole foods provide higher levels of desired nutrients which nourish the body and brain.

Nutrition is far from the only alternative intervention that can be used to treat emotional problems. Mind-body medicine holds great promise for helping children and their families. It can have enormous impact to decrease the effects of stress. It is also useful for helping those who have experienced trauma or loss. The goal in mind-body medicine is to provide education regarding the link between our bodies and minds, as well as information about how stress can impact our health and behavior. With this understanding, children and teens can be given specific instructions, either alone or in groups, to learn how to manage their emotions, stay in control of their bodies, and improve their focus. When these skills are taught and practiced, children become better students, are less likely to engage in violence, and are better able to solve problems in all areas of their lives. Parents can ask if their therapist knows and teaches these skills. Other resources can be used if no one is available to teach these skills in person. There are books and audio CDs for all ages. Here are some suggestions: Be the Boss of Your Stress: Self-Care for Kids by Timothy Culbert and Rebecca Kajander, What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety by Dawn Huebner, and Stress Proofing Your Child: Mind-Body Exercises to Enhance Your Child’s Health by Sheldon Lewis and Sheila Kay.

Many other alternative treatments are available, but not all can be covered in this space. Please let us know if you have had a positive experience with another treatment for your child or if you have questions about some other therapy