Herbal remedies, psychiatric medication and what works

file9041272379125My son told me the other day that he’s trying Melatonin again. This time it seems to be helping. When he first tried it, he was about 12, had raging insomnia which often led to rapid-fire talking and pretty wild and risky behavior. Lack of sleep stressed his brain and pushed him into what he called a “hippy happy” mood and everyone else called mania. When he was like that, I had to keep both eyes on him and do other tasks with just part of my attention. We gave Melatonin a shot and it really didn’t work. Neither did St. John’s Wort, fish oil or a variety of other herbal remedies. I really wanted them to work, but none did.

What ended up working was a combination of two psychiatric medications plus lots of therapy. We tried more than 30 medications during his childhood and teen years and many came with side effects. There was dry mouth, shaking hands, drowsiness, weight gain and the dreaded acne. Medication trials were frustrating, discouraging and it was hard to keep believing there was a magic combination out there. We soldiered through, talking, hoping and sometimes arguing about it.

We looked for something kinder, gentler and more “natural.” It seemed somehow healthier to go into the supplements aisle or vitamin store and purchase something there instead of a prescription at CVS or Walgreens. At those times I felt as if I was investing in his health rather than treating his illness and I liked that. Sometimes we use the terms “mental health” and “mental illness” interchangeably. But there is a difference between mental health and mental illness and how we engage with each one. I tried to increase his mental health through alternative approaches, but he also needed treatment for the illness.

Most parents of children and teens with mental health issues try alternative treatments at one point. For some, they seem to help. For many, they have mixed results. We all receive the same messages from the media, from our families and from other parents. Putting your children on psychiatric medications is risky business, they say. It’s dangerous and there can be long term side effects. Parents like you are cavalier and move too quickly to use medication. Some of these messages are mixed up with a strong dose of parent blaming and a good dash of stigma toward mental illness.

The negative messages about children and teens and psychiatric medication are often unchallenged. For my son, medication kept him alive. He made his first suicide attempt at age eight and there were many more over the years. When he was manic, he was unpredictable. There was the time he climbed on the roof and told us he would float down. There were other times when he would fly into rages and threaten to seriously hurt his brother. There were the weeks he cried and hid and refused to go to school. For some children and teens, medication keeps them in school and at home. It lets them sleep (and lets their parents sleep), focus and function.

When my son was in middle school his therapist wisely said, “Medication is a tool. It helps him be able to participate in therapy. It creates a space between his thinking of something and doing it. It gives us all a tool to help him manage his behavior.” A light bulb went on for me. I realized that medication was not a standalone treatment and I should stop thinking and talking about it that way. It had a context and was part of an larger strategy. My son needed more than one treatment. Without them all, he didn’t do as well. We added and subtracted until we came up with the right set of things: a school program, after school programs, lots of therapy and yes, medication. I wanted herbal remedies to be part of that set of things but it just didn’t add much.

There is always that tension between investing in mental health and treating mental illness. Maybe for some people they are one and the same. It’s certainly essential to do both. But don’t confuse the two. From the time our children are small, we do many things to increase their health, whether it’s emotional, mental or physical. We make sure they get nutritious food, a quiet place to sleep, time to play and lots of love. We find play activities for them when they are small and then shuttle them around to classes and sports when they get older. We bring them to family gatherings, religious services, community events or whatever our family does. We know these things make their bodies, minds and lives stronger.

When there are signs of illness, we notice and we act. We seek care and choose treatment. That is our role as parents. We don’t stop doing healthy things but the emphasis shifts. If it’s a medical illness, we don’t feel guilty about accepting treatment for our child. We also might add alternative remedies into the mix and don’t expect them to replace the treatment. Nobody questions or criticizes us. If the illness is psychiatric, we doubt ourselves. Other people often do the same, echoing what we are already thinking.

My son is trying wellness. He bought some Melatonin when he had a few days without sleep and it helped. We talk a lot about mindfulness and meditation these days. He might try other options soon, too. But these things work best when you are consistent, take them daily or have a daily practice. His medication lets him construct and hang on to that routine. He’s not stopping his medication because it works, he says. And it gives him the calm and quiet space to consider what else could work too.

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4 thoughts on “Herbal remedies, psychiatric medication and what works

  1. My son too tried many medications. One at age six made him
    suicidal. Then we found the one that worked for several years. But then the generic was developed caused tartifidysykia (tics). The only reason I realized what it was is he started taking it while we were in his birth country when the tics started. I mentioned to his psychiatrist that the tics started when we switched. He thought as did the pharmacist that I was the one who had problems. I said placate me and put him back on the brand name. Indeed it was the compounds that caused th not the generic itself. He would try it again several years later but the tics returned.
    He did but once my son turned 18 and went on Mass Health they refused to pay for it. We tried the prior authorization route but it didn’t work. So we needed to go with a new med or should say many new meds. One med needed two to replace the one.

    Earlier in his teens I began to notice his hair line was receding and severe acne probable side effects of the chemicals in his meds. But without them he couldn’t function. As he was a younger teen if asked me if he happen to notice an individual who was obviously not taking medication for their mental illness I was honest. I wanted him to be aware hoping that he understood the importance of taking his medications as he grew. He also does try other things like Vitamin E that he feels helps him.

    Being a single parent meant keeping a constant ear open all night to ensure he wasn’t up doing something creative, he amazed me at some of the things he did that I would never dream of doing. The school staff kept saying I needed help but when I got help they blamed the help. Our family couldn’t win. Some family members inquired when he would be fixed! Fixed I would say, I didn’t know he was a pet. As he has gotten older he has become a mini me. He has listened too often to my workshops and now will offer advice to friends. At one time he thought any problem would solve any issue he had. But now he understands the need for therapy. He is utilizing it to help him feel better. He has stated the best part is after doing some intense work meditation helps to close the session on an easier way to leave his therapist office instead of playing the session on his bike ride home. He says instead he is more aware of his surroundings.

  2. Thank you for sharing the challenging place we as parents find ourselves when our child is not functioning well. Sometimes, I let folks know that we tried a number of medications without success and then moved to naturopathic, homeopathy, diet, etc., After many years in this struggle, I came to the realization that while some psychiatric medications have difficult complications and side effects, so too is doing nothing. A couple of years after my daughter started a number of psychiatric medications, we switched to naturopathic or homeopathic treatments. The only thing we noticed that was different was the lack of some side effects – we still had not reached that place of our daughter gaining relief. Sometimes in our desperation, we go to the next pill or research based treatment. However, my experience is the same as yours Lisa. It really does take an integrated approach – and creative strategies to help our kids to feel better.
    So many of our efforts were focused on what was wrong – rather than building our daughter up. At one point when nothing at all when nothing was working, we too had to get more creative and think about how we could bring in a healthy dose of good thinking about how to take good care of oneself to begin with. I’m glad we realized that when we did – and I know that she is doing better because of that.

    I was inspired by your story – thanks for sharing!

  3. This post surely captures the complexity and struggles families face – and it’s all very familiar to me. I have no way of knowing whether the huge number of medications my son took between 4th grade and age 23 or so helped him survive that period or not. I think the therapist he had from middle school until about the same time, age 23, was a life saver. Most of my son’s self destructive actions took place while under the influence of meds. I started out deeply skeptical of the science of the medications being marketed so heavily and ended up even more so. For many years we were told he had Hashimoto’s disease – and auto immune disease causing a low thyroid. I asked over and over if the medications could have caused or contributed to that and was told no way. When he chose to go off medications, he went off everything, including the thyroid medication. He recently went to see a doctor after 3 years – his thyroid is normal! his cholesterol is normal (it had been elevated)…
    He is not without his struggles – he spent sometime just last week in the emergency room, but wanted to come home and so he did. The struggle for wellness continues. I see improvement over time, but I also get discouraged and impatient with the pace. I know I am not alone. Many families are facing similar struggles, hard choices, moments of triumph and moments of discouragement.

  4. Nice job with this. I have always preferred the term “complimentary medicine.” The word “alternative” suggests “instead of.” I put stuff such as chiropractic’s and meditation in that “complimentary” category as well. No matter what health challenges we face, living healthier lives is a good thing. People sometimes confuse “natural” with “healthier” which isn’t always the case. Some herbal remedies should not be mixed with other medications. I have heard of herbal remedies interfering with medication to prevent the body from rejecting a transplanted organ. That said, some dietary supplements such as Omega 3 fatty acids and vitamin D has shown good results in some research. I always recommend people communicate what they are doing with their doctor. And this grandmother’s advise… eat healthy, drink plenty of water and get plenty of rest.

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