The Child Mind BlogBrainstorm

  • Vaccines, Measles, and Roald Dahl
    Feb. 3, 2015 Caroline Miller

    The battle over vaccinating children took a disturbing turn this week, and I don't mean just the 102 cases of measles now scattered around 14 states. This week vaccinations became a hot-button political issue, as a couple of potential presidential candidates went on record supporting parents making their own decision on whether to vaccinate.

    Statements to that effect by Gov. Chris Christie and Senator Rand Paul prompted howls of outrage from epidemiologists, doctors, parents, and others. Collectively they noted that vaccinations are not just an individual lifestyle choice like attachment parenting or avoiding processed foods. Not vaccinating your child affects other children in a dramatic way, making it a major public health risk.

    The deep concern here is that the backlash threatens to make opposition to vaccination a rallying cry for conservative skeptics of government (and often science). As a Times headline put it, what's spreading along with measles is polarization, and that doesn't help the cause of getting kids vaccinated.

    Much has been written about how bad human beings are at measuring risk—we chronically worry about the wrong thing. In this case, a growing number of families think that the risk to their kids from vaccines—despite the overwhelming evidence that there is no link to autism—is greater than the risk to their kids, and other kids they might infect, from measles.

    Oh, the irony. Thanks, in part, to vaccines, we are so unfamiliar with these childhood illnesses that some of us don't understand that they're not just nuisances. The consequences can be deadly.

    On this the last word has to go to Roald Dahl, whose 7-year-old daughter Olivia contracted the measles in 1962. She seemed to be recovering routinely when she suddenly couldn't make her hands work. Two decades later, he wrote:

    In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead.

    The measles had turned into a terrible thing called measles encephalitis and there was nothing the doctors could do to save her. That was twenty-four years ago in 1962, but even now, if a child with measles happens to develop the same deadly reaction from measles as Olivia did, there would still be nothing the doctors could do to help her.

    On the other hand, there is today something that parents can do to make sure that this sort of tragedy does not happen to a child of theirs. They can insist that their child is immunized against measles. I was unable to do that for Olivia in 1962 because in those days a reliable measles vaccine had not been discovered. Today a good and safe vaccine is available to every family and all you have to do is to ask your doctor to administer it.

    Dahl's description is still accurate—and bolstered by 30 additional years of scientific research in vaccine safety. I hope more parents will see that not vaccinating is not a harmless decision. 

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  • What Jennifer Aniston's Dyslexia Can Teach Us
    Jan. 27, 2015 Harry Kimball

    The big news from a recent Hollywood Reporter article on actress Jennifer Aniston is her revelation that she struggled with dyslexia as a young person. She didn't receive a diagnosis, and the comfort and understanding that it can bring, until her early 20s. "I thought I wasn't smart," she tells reporter Stephen Galloway. "Now I had this great discovery."

    But what I feel is at the heart of the piece is a discussion of Aniston's resilience. Sure, Galloway presents it in tabloid terms: "Aniston's enduring appeal is rooted in the very fact that she can be hurt, again and again—whether by the Oscars or the Sexiest Man Alive—and she'll endure." But the more interesting stuff is pre-fame, pre-Brad, pre-Cake.

    She describes a difficult home life and a critical mother—but also outlets for expression, and other sources of encouragement. Her father's mother: "She was a Greek grandmother who just loved me more than anything." And she embraced acting. As Galloway writes, her dyslexia pushed her "to develop her innate humor," and towards the stage.

    Aniston acknowledges in the article that doesn't do much reading because of her dyslexia, and that's a shame. Over the years we've encountered so many talented actors and entertainers who have used their extraordinary reserves of willpower and ambition to succeed despite a learning disorder, and that is admirable. But I don't think they would be any less successful if they had gotten help earlier in life, when it matters most.

    Aniston recounts her diagnosis:

    I went to get a prescription for glasses. I had to wear these Buddy Holly glasses. One had a blue lens and one had a red lens. And I had to read a paragraph, and they gave me a quiz, gave me 10 questions based on what I'd just read, and I think I got three right. Then they put a computer on my eyes, showing where my eyes went when I read. My eyes would jump four words and go back two words.

    Aniston obviously doesn't want for success, not to speak of a public that loves her. But the image of her "Buddy Holly glasses" accidental diagnosis reminds us of how important it is to get help for kids who, like her, think there's something wrong with them because they try just as hard but can't do what other kids do easily. And maybe Jen can lend a hand.

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  • ‘Parenthood’ Wishes Aspie Max a Bright Future
    Jan. 23, 2015 Beth Arky

    With the second-to-last episode of Parenthood, creator Jason Katims raised questions about the future for Max Braverman, the teen diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome.

    When we first met Max six years ago, he was an undiagnosed grade-schooler who insisted on wearing his pirate costume to school every day and was asked to leave his mainstream setting after his sensory issues led him to push over the gurgling classroom fish tank. Along with his parents, Kristina and Adam, we've watched Max grow into a young man with a passion and talent for photography under the mentorship of Hank, who may also be on the autism spectrum.

    Over six seasons, Parenthood has received both high and low marks from the autism community; some parents feel their reality has been depicted accurately and that the show has promoted awareness and acceptance, while other parents as well as autistic adults believe it has candy-coated life on the spectrum. But Parenthood has touched on some important themes associated with autism, including bolting, mainstreaming, bullying and social skills challenges. Katims' own experience as an autism dad has clearly come into play.

    The latest episode proved no exception. During Career Week at Chambers Academy—the school founded by Max's parents for kids with developmental and learning differences—Max informed fellow student and aspiring chef Edgar "it probably doesn't matter what you cook because you're probably going to end up unemployed anyway. Autism has an 85 percent unemployment rate." While that statistic is up for debate, there's no doubt that the numbers are bleak, with autistics challenged mightily as they try to transition post-high school into college and/or the workplace.

    But Kristina and Adam would have none of it. The fierce advocate mom told her doubting son that she could see a bright future for him because "we've watched you grow in simply amazing ways.... I think you're going to be more than employable."

    With a number of storylines still up in the air for what promises to be a tear-jerking finale on Thursday, we wish Max and the Bravermans a bon voyage and thank them for six seasons of compelling TV.

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  • World's Worst Mom or Free Range Parent?
    Jan. 21, 2015 Rachel Ehmke

    Would you let your kids walk home alone from the park? It's the way many of us were raised, but the days of Mom sending you out to play in the neighborhood until it's time for dinner are long gone. We think about all the things that could go wrong. Stranger danger. Bullying. Falling and getting hurt. And whether parents consider it or not, there's also a new danger: public censure.  

    Seeing a kid alone in the park is now a cause for alarm much like an unattended bag at the airport: If you see something, say something. At best the other parents will think you're negligent and say something catty. At worst they'll think you're negligent and call the cops. If this sounds like an exaggeration, moms were arrested twice over the summer for letting kids go to the park by themselves, and something similar happened again this Saturday, when a Maryland woman let her 10-year-old and 6-1/2-year old walk home together from the park. Police saw the kids walking home and pulled over to investigate. Even though the kids said they were fine and were allowed to walk home by themselves, the police drove them home instead, and now Child Protective Services is involved.

    "This is no joke," said the mom, Danielle Meitiv. "The threat that they can take my kids is real."

    In an interview Meitiv said that when she was growing up she'd go to the bowling alley or library by herself at a young age. "The idea that a parent would escort you somewhere, I mean my mother would have cracked up: 'What are you nuts?' "

    A return to this style of hands-off parenting has become something of a movement. Lenore Skenazy,  who coined the term free range parenting, argues that letting kids be more independent helps them build self-confidence and become more resourceful. She says the calamities parents fear are unlikely and, far from being endangered, kids who are raised "free range" are more resilient and less anxious-and so are their parents.

    Skenazy has a book on the subject and a blog and now, premiering Thursday, a reality show on the Discovery Life Channel called World's Worst Mom, which is what she was called for letting her 9-year-old take the subway alone. In each episode she goes to a different family's house and encourages the kids to do things their parents would have been too afraid to let them do, like learn to ride a bike or take a city bus. The parents are watching, either in-person or on camera, and presumably they come around to the idea that their kids are more capable than they thought.

    With parents like Meitiv being investigated for neglect, the show couldn't be starting at a better time. We're looking forward to watching it on Thursday, and hearing what parents think. 

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  • Playing Music Improves Kids' Mental Health
    Jan. 6, 2015 Harry Kimball

    Our friend Dr. James Hudziak at the University of Vermont College of Medicine takes a holistic view of childhood mental health. As ScienceDaily reports, his Vermont Family Based Approach holds that "the entirety of a young person's environment—parents, teachers, friends, pets, extracurricular activitiescontributes to his or her psychological health." And that includes picking up an instrument.

    "Music is a critical component in my model," Hudziak says, and now he has brain imaging data to support it. A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry suggests that playing music increases cortical thicknessassociated with brain healthnot only in motor areas, but also in areas associated with behavior regulation, executive function, and emotional control.

    This is cutting-edge neuroscience that supports common sense: nurturing a child with engaging pursuits like music will likely have a constructive effect on development. But Hudziak is thinking bigger than a well-rounded childhood, or even prevention. "We treat things that result from negative things," he says, "but we never try to use positive things as treatment."

    It's obviously a tall order to get music into the lives of all the kids who struggle with emotional dysregulation, attention disorders, or anxiety, and the study authors recognize this. Furthermore, seriously impaired children often need more help than a music lesson, or even a weekly visit to the therapist. But we all know our mental health care system for young people is broken, and having another tool in the toolbox is music to our ears.

    Also, watch Dr. Hudziak talk about the mental health benefits of athletics and team sports here.

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  • One Mother's Christmas Wish
    Dec. 16, 2014 Caroline Miller

    Liza Long, the wonderfully empathetic and courageous woman who two years ago wrote "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother," has written a kind of Christmas letter on her blog that I found quite moving. The good news is that her family, shattered by her son's emotional problems, is now back together, after treatment that has ended his violent outbursts. Last weekend she took her daughter to see her first Nutcracker—a favorite holiday treat for so many mothers and daughters.

    At the same time, Long notes that the effective help her family got and the hope with which they approach the future are things so many other families lack. And she cites at least 15 men and women with documented mental illness who were killed by on-duty police officers in 2014. Long sees being open about the "often overwhelming challenges of mental illness" as a critical first step in getting more families access to care. "Without treatment," she writes, "two years after Newtown, for too many families, Christmas is a time of sorrow and loss and grief."

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  • Two Years After Newtown
    Dec. 12, 2014 Caroline Miller

    Sunday is the second anniversary of the shootings that claimed the lives of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  One of the groups formed in the aftermath of that tragedy, Sandy Hook Promise, has released a powerful video that tells the story of three families who lost children to gun violence. One thing the three stories have in common is missed opportunities.

    One is the story of a 16-year-old boy killed by a friend fooling around with his father's shotgun, which had been left in an unlocked closet. The victim's best friend said of the evening that ended in his death: "There were so many red flags that night and we just ignored them. We were kids that thought this would never happen to us."

    The second story was about a depressed teenager who killed herself with a gun she took from the trunk of her policeman father's car. While she deflected concern from her family, she posted extensive notes on social media platforms about her suicidal feelings. They're painful to see, including a tweet: "It's like God is torturing me keeping me here."

    The third story is that of a 7-year-old boy killed at Sandy Hook. His father, thinking of the shooter, talks of the tragic combination of isolation and access to guns. But he also says, "This doesn't happen overnight or in a week. There had to be multiple markers, multiple opportunities to intervene" that might have prevented the tragedy.  

    Here's the note he closes on, and a message we endorse: "I think our responsibility as parents transcends our own children; we also need to look out for our neighbors and their children." He notes that sometimes an outsider "will notice and bring light to something almost too close for a family to see."

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  • Hollywood Speaks Up for Children's Mental Health
    Dec. 8, 2014 Harry Kimball

    On Thursday and Sunday, PBS stations in the New York City metropolitan area will air a Metrofocus episode including clips from our 2014 Speak Up for Kids event A Leading Role: How TV and Film Can Change Kids' Lives. You can check out the PBS presentation at these times and locations:

    Thurs. 12/11 @ 7 p.m. on WLIW21 http://www.wliw.org/

    Thurs. 12/11 @ 10:30 p.m. on NJTV http://www.njtvonline.org/

    Sun. 12/14 @ 7 p.m. on THIRTEEN http://www.thirteen.org/

    We wrote this blog about the original event:

    Last May in Los Angeles as part of Speak Up for Kids, producer Brian Grazer convened a panel of Hollywood leaders to discuss the depiction of mental illness in the media, and it highlighted the fascinating union of lived experience and pure entertainment that our best storytellers bring to the screen. In addition to Mr. Grazer, the panelists were director David O. Russell, TV showrunner Jason Katims, and Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos.

    As moderator Willow Bay pointed out, contrary to her journalistic training to be "very careful about my gender biases," these men are "fathers using their voice." The fact that dads are speaking up to "advocate on behalf of children and families struggling with these issues, to give a voice, a face, to give a story to the challenges of mental health," she continued, "is very well worth noting."

    And the whole conversation is well worth watching, which I encourage you to do so here. But if there is one takeaway for me, it's a combination of Russell's response to an audience member's question and something Sarandos said earlier in the event. The question: will it take "more sharing of stories" to address the stigma of mental illness? Mind you, Katims and Grazer have sons with Asperger's syndrome, and Russell's son has bipolar disorder. Yes, they agreed, visibility will reduce the shame. But Russell hit home just how damaging that shame is: it interferes with people being "responsible for themselves and their own behavior."

    He related this to the main character in his film Silver Linings Playbook. "Because of the stigma he didn't want to take his medication. And that's a big struggle for a lot of people." Russell's son also has behavioral plans to manage his symptoms. "Real simple—that's the driving manual for my son's life, his future. And when he masters that, he can go, just like someone who takes insulin everyday."

    But how do we get to the widespread understanding that can normalize chronic mental illness to the extent that symptoms and treatments alike are acceptableso that they can be owned and managed without shame by our sons and daughters? Unsurprisingly, the panel put faith in the screen. Sarandos put it in particularly honest terms.

    "When I was a kid, we learned almost everything in high school," he said. "Now, kids learn almost everything on television." That's not a bad thing for Sarandos, who has high school kids of his own. "When I was in high school, the kids with disabilities were corralled off somewhere else, we never saw them, they had a different lunch hour. We'd pass them like this," he said, miming a quick glimpse in the hallway, "who was that?" I remember the same thing when I was in elementary school. "There was no opportunity to get to know them, their stories, their lives."

    So Sarandos is happy that media is opening its eyes to the marginalized and stigmatizedbecause the younger generation is watching. And why wouldn't they be? "Parenthood is a great show," he concluded. "Silver Linings Playbook, you can't even talk about it without laughing."

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  • De Blasio: $130 Million for Mentally Ill in Justice System
    Dec. 2, 2014 Caroline Miller

    One of the things Hillary Clinton talked about in accepting the Child Mind Institute's Child Advocacy Award last week was the need for more and better community care for people with mental illness. Without that, she said, "jails and prisons have, in many ways, become our primary mental health providers."

    We certainly agree, which is why we were glad to read today about New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's initiative to improve mental health services for people in the justice system. Some 40 percent of inmates in the city's jails, the New York Times reports, have a mental illness. De Blasio pledged to spend $130 million over four years on both pretrial diversion programs—to get people who have committed minor offenses into treatment instead of jailand services for inmates who are being discharged from jail. Both are desperately needed.

    Since stories are so much more persuasive than numbers, the Times piece cited a homeless 56-year-old veteran with schizophrenia and a substance abuse problem who died earlier this year in custody. He had been arrested for sleeping in a stairwell. Instead of getting help, he was sent to Rikers. 

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  • An Iraq Veteran on Telling Stories and Processing Feelings
    Dec. 2, 2014 Jessica Kashiwabara

    Debut author and Iraq veteran Phil Klay has won the National Book Award in Fiction for his short story collection Redeployment. In his acceptance speech he expressed how writing helped him to process and communicate his experiences: "I can't think of a more important conversation to be having. War is too strange to be processed alone."

    Klay served 13 months in the Anbar province in Iraq from 2007-2008 as a public affairs officer for the Marines. In a video discussing his book, the 31-year-old author speaks about his need to tell these stories: "Before I served, my notions of war were incredibly shallow, and I didn't actually come back much wiser. But I had all these unquiet memories that demanded attention."

    He continues: "This book is a result of four years of me trying to engage with these wars, and what they've meant for the people involved. It's my attempt to be as honest as possible. And crucially for me, it's my attempt to take those unquiet memories and experiences and communicate them."

    In a New York Times op-ed entitled "After War, a Failure of the Imagination" published earlier this year, Klay wrote about the disconnect between civilians and veterans. He challenged civilians to connect and listen to the stories of veterans, and for veterans to share them. "Believing war is beyond words is an abrogation of responsibility—it lets civilians off the hook from trying to understand, and veterans off the hook from needing to explain."

    Creating your own narrative can be a powerful way to process difficult experiences. That's true for all of us, whether we're veterans or soccer moms or high schoolers. When we have complicated emotions, ignoring them doesn't help, but finding a way to face them does. We can't say that often enough. 

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