>Children make 3 billion new connections in their brain every second. That is 3 billion opportunities for growth, or 3 billion missed connections.
With rising rates of ADHD, autism, and other mental health disorders in American children, it seems like more and more of these connections are being missed. And medications that we give our kids often carry serious side effects.
However, not all hope is lost. Mental Health for the Whole Child by Scott Shannon, advocates that practitioners focus on things like sleep and nutrition and family life and spirituality in a child’s life, making holistic improvements before trying medication.
As a well-known child and adolescent psychiatrist, Shannon addresses others in his field with this guide for evaluating and treating children. Although written for other clinicians, his book is useful for anyone interested in learning more about the modern, evolving theory of mental health. With clear, concise, and accessible language, Shannon writes a well-researched, thoughtful text, and supports his thesis with a multitude of peer-reviewed research and case studies.
The book is divided into two sections. The first reviews current thought and practices in treating children and introduces Shannon’s approach to treatment. The author argues that today’s psychiatric practices have come to over-rely on diagnosing an illness and then treating that illness with a psychotropic medication. This approach to treatment takes the illness at face value as a neurochemical imbalance and never reaches deeper to explore other possible causes for unwanted behaviors, actions, and beliefs.
As Shannon points out, recent research has brought this theory of neurochemical imbalance into question. Ultimately, Shannon posits, the theory limits a doctor’s understanding of the patient and his or her illness, and narrows the perception of available treatments.
Rather than simply focusing on diagnosis and medication, Shannon recommends assessing and treating each child in seven different areas, then tailoring treatment to address the most pressing needs. His seven building blocks for holistic health are nutrition, connections with others, sound sleep, engagement, self-regulation, spirituality, and family. Dysfunction in any of these realms can be a barrier to health for a child — a barrier that would not vanish simply with medication. As Shannon sees it, tackling the underlying causes rather than medicating the symptoms allows true, long-term healing and health to occur.
The second half of the book delves more deeply into these issues for the most common mental health problems seen in children. Each chapter reviews recent research and the barriers most commonly seen, and suggests potential treatment avenues as well as step-by-step general treatment plans.
Clearly a caring and compassionate physician, the author is very persuasive. While reading you may find yourself evaluating the children in your own life and the effects of their environment. How many children are on medication but don’t need to be? Who could be helped with lifestyle changes rather than antipsychotics? Should we change the model of treatment to address these areas first? Should medication only be used when lifestyle changes reap little or no benefits?
The strength of this book lies in the fact that it is presents a well-researched argument. Shannon has taken the time to thoroughly delve into the most recent dialogue in the scientific community, providing the most up-to-date review and synthesis of information.
However, with so many families struggling to navigate the mental health system, a book written to educate families would be immensely useful. It would be wonderful if Shannon would write not just for clinicians, but for families who may not have access to a doctor with his perspective — or access to a doctor at all. To help parents advocate for themselves and their children would be a tremendous use of the author’s time. One hopes to see something like this from Shannon in the future.
Overall, however, the book is an informative read. It highlights current issues, suggests new practices, and explores ways to holistically improve a child’s health. Mental Health for the Whole Child reminds us that children do not exist in isolation. And, neither does disease. To truly reach and help children who are suffering we must understand and work to improve their entire environment.
Mental Health for the Whole Child: Moving Young Clients from Disease & Disorder to Balance & Wellness
W. W. Norton & Company, July, 2013
Hardcover, 416 pages