file0001976662480“Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears – it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. -Oliver Sacks

Although for some kids, finding the right medication is a life-changer, there are many parents who are adamantly opposed to putting their kids on drugs–particularly without trying something more holistic first. There is great news on many different fronts as well as new research from around the world, showing that there are alternative approaches to treatment shown to be effective in combatting depression in children and teens. Here are just a few of them that have recently caught my eye…

Computer Gaming and Cognitive Therapy Merge

It may be hard to believe, but the prestigious British Medical Journal featured a role-playing computer fantasy game on the cover of its journal last year. Dr Sally Merry, Associate Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Auckland University in New Zealand compared the use of a 3D animated fantasy game, called “Sparx,” with traditional face-to-face psychotherapy.

Perhaps it will come as no surprise that not only was it undoubtedly more fun, but the game proved just as effective in treating depression in adolescents as face-to-face therapy. And it was more effective than treatment as usual for those who were most depressed at the start, showing positive effects for both males and females and for different ethnic groups. Since depression is all too prevalent in teens and vastly under-treated, games like this could be helpful to prevention tools as well.file5961243012756

The game applies principles from cognitive behavioral therapy, giving players the task of obliterating “gloomy negative automatic thoughts” (ugly critters called GNATS) in order to progress through its multiple levels. It has yet to be made available to the public but Merry has teamed up a Baltimore-based healthcare startup called Linkedwellness founded by David Burt and Frank Otenasek, both of whom have close family members who suffer from depression. Their mission is to provide e-therapies that have the potential to help treat people with mental health problems. especially those who might not ever get help otherwise due to its stigma or inaccessibility.

Teaching Kids Mindfulness Meditation

Researchers at the University of Leuven in Belgium followed 408 students between the ages of 13 and 20 from five different schools in Flanders, Belgium. Questionnaires that measured levels of depression and anxiety were given to all the kids who were then randomly assigned to either a control group (who got no training) or to a test group. Before the training, 21-24% of the students reported symptoms of depression.file5311337572371

The test group then received in-class mindfulness training. Students were taught breathing and body scan exercises as well as given information about stress and depression. Since conducted in a class setting, students were encouraged to share their experiences and received feedback and inspiration from one anther. When tested immediately after the instruction, the teens that learned the mindfulness techniques had decreased symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression. When tested six months later, 16 percent of the test group and 31 percent of the control group reported symptoms of depression.

Music Helps Heal the Soul

Most of us know intuitively that music can facilitate healing in many ways–the right song can lift our spirits, help us have a good cry, or inspire us to get up and dance. For those who need more evidence from scientific channels, it is coming. A Finnish study that was published two years ago in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that adding music therapy to a standard treatment for depression improved the outcomes significantly.file000759659314

Although we may not fully understand exactly how it works, music can help children manage their feelings. If you are looking for a musical means to help your young child deal with fears or phobias or banish bad thoughts, check out, developed by child psychologist, “Dr Mac”, featuring songs with accompanying activities that parents can practice with their 4 to 9 year old kids. Like meditation, music brings with it many other positive effects as well, lighting up the brain and promoting other forms of social, emotional and academic learning.

Family Therapy and Omega-3 Supplements

Dr. Mary Fristad, a clinical child psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center has been studying mood disorders in adults for twenty years. She turned her attention to working with children when she saw that anti-depressants alone were not doing the job. “We were treating kids with effective medications, but their families did not have the coping strategies needed to deal with the child’s mood disorder symptoms,” explains Fristad. “Without a supportive environment, you can’t expect any pharmacologic or dietary interventions to succeed.”

Fristad is studying the effects of psycho-educational psychotherapy which is a the method that teaches parents and their children about mood disorders, including how to recognize and manage symptoms. Parents and kids are also taught communication skills, ways to regulate emotions, and how to get services and support from local mental health agencies. Family therapists such as Carol Anderson published research on this approach thirty years ago demonstrating its effectiveness in reducing hospitalizations of schizophrenics.

The kids, aged 7 to 14, are also given supplements of omega-3’s (found in seafood and/or flaxseed), a natural alternative to psychotropic medications. The use of omega-3’s have been the subject of numerous studies. An expert panel was convened in 2006 by the American Psychiatric Association to review published studies evaluating the effects of omega-3 fatty acids in major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, dementia, borderline personality disorder and impulsivity, and ADHD.  Many doctors standardly recommend this supplement for its other well-known health benefits as an anti-inflammatory and for cardiovascular health.

These are some positive signs that the treatment of depression in kids can begin at home–with the family, with education and skill-building, with fun in the form of music and games, and with deep relaxation and new found awareness. Let me know of other creative approaches out there too.