What Did You Call My Kid?

Are psychiatric labels for children helpful or harmful?

20 million children in this country have been given psychiatric labels, often with a drug treatment attached. Shouldn’t we seek a different perspective when such a large proportion of our children are labeled with a “mental illness” and the stigma attached? This week my blog is inspired by a powerful, 2-minute video from a group called the Citizens Commission on Human Rights International. I invite you to watch it first, then continue on to further comments.

Where I originally came across this video, I wrote,
I feel strongly in agreement with this video. Our society, and particularly the whole medical field, is far too dependent on labels which put people in boxes yet frequently offer no meaningful “treatment” options. While it is a natural tendency to notice patterns in phenomena and to label those patterns in order to better communicate and respond to the patterns, I object to the pathologizing of large ranges of human (and child) behavior with such labels.

Often, once labeled, people act as though the labeling is THE TRUTH, and all too often, chemistry is the answer for the labeled pathology. Giving drugs that superficially reduce a child’s disruptiveness in a highly focused, highly structured learning environment is rarely the best way to help that child develop their full potential. What if the problem is not the child, but the environment? What if the problem in our educational system appears in the child’s behavior in the same way a family’s dysfunctional emotional patterns show up overtly in one member of the family usually a child? That child then becomes “the-one-with-the-problem”…the “identified patient”.

R.D. Laing wrote, “Insanity is a sane response to an insane world.” What is needed is not just labels, but more creative options for growing, learning, and loving. Finding those is harder than prescribing a drug and requires a lot more courage and honest introspection. We humans are way too complicated and we know far too little about ourselves, the brain, and its diversity to be so quick to grab at the “easy” answers the diagnostic labels seem to offer, especially when such diagnoses can cause great harm.

After my remarks, a friend of mine, a Mother of 3, said it better than I could with the following powerful comments (reprinted with her permission).

I want to share a few personal thoughts about the value of that video. I am the mother of three exceptional, outspoken, not cookie-cutter daughters. My eldest daughter is 21. Her second grade teacher told me she had ADHD, needed to be on ritalin and would never go to college. That woman was just lazy and my daughter challenged her! This May she will graduate from college Summa Cum Laude with two majors and a minor. She plans to get a PhD in Education and wants to work within the education system to make the changes she wishes she had experienced as a student.

My middle daughter is 18. She was so painfully shy when she was younger that I was told she had Asberger’s. She started college at 16 a thousand miles from home. At the end of this month she will leave for China for 6 months to do a semester of college at Qingdao University and stay on during the summer to do research for which she (and a team) have received a huge grant. She will graduate Summa Cum Laude in May ’12 at age 19 and is fluent in Mandarin.

My youngest has several psychiatric diagnoses. She is on lots of meds. I have repeatedly been told she should be in a therapeutic, boarding school and cannot be managed at home. I was also told she could only be in public school with “Exceptional Student Exemptions”, but she is a sophomore in public high school and in the National Honor Society! I know that an ESE is a life sentence that can plague your college applications.I know that a child with serious issues needs more love, and not to be sent away from home.

My daughters are each grateful to have a mother who refused to label them. Even when there is a serious diagnosis and treatment is in place, there is no need for systemic and insidious labeling. And chances are good that, as in my family, 2/3rds of the kids being labeled today need more patience and understanding and encouragement and not labels and meds!

The makers of the video, the Citizens Commission on Human Rights International, also has a related article at their group’s website. Though I agree with most things in that article, I found it strident and perhaps unnecessarily alienating to the millions of compassionate educational and medical professionals doing good work with children, and who still believe in these labels. I think what we need is more education and effective persuasion to make a cultural shift here.

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Paul Chubbuck is a practicing psychotherapist in Fort Collins, CO, using Somatic Experiencing® to help people release unresolved trauma. He may be reached at 970-493-2958 or through his website at www.releasingthepast.com.

Your comments, questions, and stories are welcome below. I will respond.

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    • Dorothy

      Two of my sons were diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease..the youngest has taken total disability at age 51; the older, still a practicing attorney. Normal, healthy boys before…research shows possible connection to rural (farm) environment…with herbicides and pesticides….
      Even at ages 50 and 60 labeling hurts..tho both fellas deal with it amazingly well. Good blog…thanks for sharing.