Childhood mental illness, and you.

I woke up to this amazing meme on my Facebook page, posted by Brother’s Wife.

Don’t medicate kids for being kids because kids never experience mental illness and any problems they have are probably just their magical spirits shining through hooray!

I hate shit like this, I really do, but I hate it most when it comes from family. I want to take this moment to point out that for years during the early struggles with Tempest’s autism, we were isolated and stigmatized for behaviours she exhibited by Brother and Brother’s Wife… who then go on to deny the very existence of it at all. Feels good, man.
Later on, Brother’s Wife appeared to recognized the huge improvements that were made with treatment (medication) and even complimented us on our determination to get her appropriate care… while apparently also believing that what she experienced doesn’t even exist and is probably due to bad parenting? Say what? This isn’t pure conjecture here: all was revealed during the ensuing argument on said post. I seriously cannot even with this crap.

This level of ridiculousness makes me want to rant a bit about our culture’s unbelievable level of cognitive dissonance regarding children’s mental health.
We seem to all agree that there is a mental health care crisis, especially given recent news-worthy events like school shootings and the like. In general, we all share the belief that we need more care, less stigma, more access and more knowledge. If I stand up and speak to a crowd about how people need more access to proper diagnostic care, I’m fairly confident that everyone would be in agreement. Media (both left and right) even seems to be on board: getting proper, prompt care is imperative to maintaining an acceptable quality of life for someone who has any sort of mental illness, behavioural problem or other neurological impairment of some sort. This is not only important for the sufferer, but to their family and friends (or caretakers). For the most part we even seem to acknowledge the existence of carer fatigue: the stress that comes from constantly taking care of someone with a mental illness (or physical one, for that matter).
This isn’t a perfect example, of course, but in general I find the above to be true.

But… when we try to discuss mental health in relation to children suddenly everyone goes all Invasion of the Bodysnatchers.

Now all of a sudden the idea of prompt and proper care is “robbing them of a childhood”. Any discussion about treatment or diagnosis of childhood mental illness is drowned out by the angry mob claiming that it doesn’t even exist; the scads of professionals and researchers who devote their lives to finding these treatments simply don’t know how to appreciate their little spirits. Diagnosis of these disorders (or recognition of the symptoms) are perceived as the fault of lazy mothers (because it’s always about the mothers) who won’t spank enough/spank too much/spoil/neglect/ignore their kids, and are otherwise incompetent failures that flunked out of Mommy Grad School. Any attempt at increasing awareness and improving support is overshadowed by the narrative of the enlightened mother who doesn’t believe in all that “hooey” about child mental illness because her days are filled with flowers and rainbows as she encourages her merely-misunderstood-genius children to create lovely paint messes on the kitchen floor. That may sound extreme, but a quick browse around any social networking site will tell you the same, trust me.
You can’t swing a lolcat on Facebook without hitting some sort of, “don’t medicate kids” meme or psuedo-meaningful quotation about how children deserve “real childhoods” instead of being oppressed by parents who want to stifle their natural beauty with buckets upon buckets of Ritalin. In these shareables, children who take any sort of medication are presented as victims of some sort of vast “ADHD conspiracy” wherein a completely normal kid is maliciously misdiagnosed, leading to their horrible disfigurement through toxic medications, and ongoing neglect by parents who probably just want more time on Tumblr and clearly don’t love the kid at all.

It is baffling to me how pervasive this belief has become. The same people who readily call for mental health care reform will also deny the very existence of these problems in children and youth. Do people really think that all children are born neurotypical and are only capable of developing neurological disorders once they turn 18? Do they think the people who have suffered from depression or ADHD all their lives are either lying or exaggerating? I really don’t understand this. From what I can gather, the reasoning behind the belief seems to be that the more improved the diagnostic procedures (and thusly the more often diagnoses are made), the more likely it is to not exist in the first place. Does anyone else see how fucking bonkers this sounds?
To be fair, there are parts of the argument that I can jive with: we are definitely seeing more and more evidence that some neurological problems in children may be influenced by environmental toxins or exposure to pesticides. We see evidence of epidemics, and clusters of cases that we think would not normally occur without some sort of catalyst. Children are our canaries in the coal mine, in that aspect. But upon realizing the prevalence of neurological disorders is increasing, the answer is not to then refuse to treat said problems or deny their existence entirely. Mental illness is the only field of health care where we regularly refuse to treat (or even acknowledge) patients – and it does very real harm. Telling someone that the disorder they’re suffering with doesn’t even exist isn’t too far from telling them to “snap out of it”. A diagnosis of ADHD, for example, cannot even be made without “clear evidence of clinically significant impairment in social, academic, or occupational functioning” for a period no shorter than six months, as stated by the DSM IV. In layman’s terms, that means that the child’s quality of life is suffering as a result of their symptoms. Really, this isn’t a case of misunderstood childhood: these are kids who cannot have a childhood as a direct result of their symptoms.
The people who promote this “don’t medicate childhood” kind of thinking tend to have this idea that disorders like ADHD are nothing more than a mild exaggeration of typical childhood behaviour. Like their worst problem is not being able to sit still for six straight hours or being kind of annoying. The reality is that having uncontrolled ADHD is like having your brain riding a roller coaster, non-stop, all day long. You can’t think, you can’t focus, you can’t enjoy your hobbies, you can’t hold a conversation, you can’t learn new facts, you can’t read a book, you can’t play a game, you can’t be with your friends, you can’t even make friends… because your body and your brain won’t stop spinning and spinning and spinning out of control. That lack of control is frightening, not fun. It’s not a joyous part of childhood. It’s embarrassing, it’s uncomfortable and it’s definitely not a case of people not appreciating your uniqueness. For a child sufferer, medication can mean the difference between sitting in a corner tearing the paper out of books, and being able to actually read one.

If you had a child in horrible pain, denying them the medication that dramatically improved their quality of life would easily be considered a form of abuse. To do so would be willfully prolonging and perhaps even worsening the suffering of that child. But have a mentally ill child, or a child with a severe behavioural problem that affects their ability to interact with the world and other children who requires medication to function? Well, in that case
It’s easy to say those symptoms are a “gift” and those lazy-ass parents simply need to “teach children to harness it” when you’ve never, ever, ever had a child with a severe neurological or behavioural disability. Ever. When it comes to youth mental health, our cultural awareness of what exists and how to treat it is so severely skewed toward ignorance that we’ve created an atmosphere where it is more acceptable to make children suffer than it is to admit there may be a problem, and then attempt to help them find stability (and safety) through treatment of that problem.
Treating said disorder goes the same way that any diagnostic process does: trial and error, taking into account the patient (or their guardian’s) preferences. Sometimes you get awesome doctors who work with you, sometimes you get shit ones who don’t listen. Sometimes the pills have unintended side effects and you have to deal with it, sometimes you try a few different things before finally finding something that works. And very rarely you find something outside any field of modern medicine that helps you. That’s rare, but it happens, and when it happens that’s pretty awesome. But, that doesn’t mean that everyone else is as lucky and fortunate as you. When you’re that person, you have to understand that you’re a minority: you’re unique, and fortunate, and to be honest I’m thinking that most of the time you probably weren’t suffering in a way that was fucking up your life to the point where you couldn’t live it at all. That’s awesome for you, but it’s not the same for the majority of sufferers. This is another major pet peeve when it comes to this discussion: the, “I had trouble doing homework, someone said it was ADHD, but then I meditated and it went away so ADHD doesn’t exist and all the meds are a lie!” people.
Let me use an example to explain this phenomenon that may be easier to relate to: physical pain.
I have a spinal disease encoded right into my genes that slowly fuses my vertebrae, trapping nerves, causing excruciating pain that I’m likely to experience the rest of my life. I take very strong medications every day to maintain an acceptable quality of life. Can you imagine if my friends and family were having the conversation around me about how, as a culture, we need to examine why so many people have “back pain” and whether or not it even exists? Because gee, “Can’t you just meditate it away? I knew this one guy who said his back hurt, and he had a hot shower, and it totally went away. You should totally try that! People take too many narcotics this days, and you’re just a victim of overmedication.”
Even if each of those things were true, they are mutually exclusive and not at all related to someone with a chronic, disabling condition. It’s laughable naiveté at best, and deeply offensive ignorance at worst. You’re using the totally unrelated experience of a buddy of yours to invalidate my pain, my reality, and silence my voice. You’re using your own ignorance to deny me my right to receive care without stigma and judgment.
Bringing it back to the subject at hand: kids who are hyperactive because they’re excited or bored, or become fidgety and moody after missing their nap, are not even remotely related to the child who has been suffering from a neurological disorder every single day for 6+ months of their life. Just because you personally can’t tell the difference between a temporary state and a chronic disorder, doesn’t mean the latter child should be denied the medication that could help them, and their family stigmatized and ostracized for pursuing it.

It doesn’t help that some mental health terminology has been appropriated into slang, (like being, “So OCD” or, “Totally ADD!”) which not only contributes to ignorance about these disorders, but tends to downplay the reality of living with them. If you truly believe you’re “so OCD” for alphabetizing your DVD collection, you probably don’t care too much about the suffering of your room-mate who is up all night checking the locks. Mental illness isn’t a cute accessory; it’s generally a fucking nightmare.
You may have a teacher you tells you that your kid has ADHD because they fidget, and you’re angry that they don’t know shit, but this doesn’t somehow mean ADHD doesn’t exist. This same teacher isn’t going to magically force your child to take pills they don’t need for a disorder they don’t have; they’re just fucking annoying… so don’t turn around and start spouting shit about how every child who does take medication is being forced into it. And you sitting in the schoolyard ranting about how kids are “overmedicated” and “ADHD is a farce” is really not helping the other moms nearby who went through the unnecessarily agonizing decision of treating their own children for disorders that made them unable to function… children who are now experiencing happiness, hobbies, friends and life for the first time. Because even while seeing their children blossom with joy, these mothers still feel deep guilt and shame because people like you will take one look at them and say, “Poor kid, they’re just special, they don’t need all those toxic medications! I bet he’d be fine without them if he had a mom who would take the time to appreciate him”.
That is what it feels like when you share that “don’t medicate childhood! Imagination is not a mental illness!” crap on your wall.
So, thanks for that. Good job, asshole.

Cultural ignorance about mental illness does not negate it’s existence, or the necessity of proper care and treatment. We do have a mental health care crisis, and this is why. As long as we keep arguing over whether or not it even exists, we will actively contribute to the ignorance surrounding proper care and the stigma of receiving it.
Children experience mental illness; they experience the isolation, shame and depression that comes along with having it. I know, because I was one of these children. I’m also now a mother who is raising one. These children deserve the right to access proper diagnostic care and treatment without stigma, and the chance to blossom upon receiving that care. This includes taking the same medications that may have saved your adult friend’s life, allowed another friend to pursue higher education, cured your husband’s anxiety, or allowed you to control your postpartum depression… and if you can admit it helped you or your loved ones, why deny the same to youth who suffer the same way?
So please, give children and their parents the same care… and stop sharing bullshit about how these kids are having their childhoods stolen from them, when the reality is that through that treatment, it’s being given back.




  • Stephanie says:

    First–this is brilliant. I have a close friend who just had two foster children placed with her, and she is finding it extremely difficult to get the support she needs from extended family and from teachers who just want to pass off one of her children’s behaviors as “typical little kid,” even though she, as the parent, can see that is not it, and those attitudes make it so difficult to in turn give the child the right support.
    Second, echoing what Sarah and Colleen both mentioned, there is a culture of overmedication, and it’s a double edged sword–it not only puts a lot of children on medications they may not actually need and therefore exposing them to all the side effects people who are against these medications stand behind, but because there are people are on unnecessary medications, when somebody does need it, everyone has a story of someone who was able to, as you spoke of, meditate or find some other alternative therapy, so they view any medication as unnecessary based on anecdotes.
    I am a huge supporter of alternative medicine and do feel that in so many cases medication is not necessary, but that’s largely because I’m very disillusioned with how readily behaviors are diagnosed and medicated by mental health professionals without a full examination. If children are being diagnosed ADHD (or any other emotional/behavioral disability) after short office visits, you do end up with a lot of children who are misdiagnosed and overmedicated. It hurts everyone–the people who don’t need it, as well as the people who do. If mental health professionals were not so quick to use medication as a band-aid on a bullet hole, it would help everyone–for people who do not truly *need* long-term medication, they would have somebody who works with them and finds a way to help them heal. As a personal example, my younger sister has spent years in and out of residential treatment facilities for an eating disorder, overnight stays in psychiatric wards, and was at one point on 16 different medications for severe depression. Over the years her therapists have tried to get her off of most of these drugs but she is still on a couple of the more dangerous, addicting prescriptions. She recently saw a doctor who diagnosed her with a thyroid disorder, put her on Synthroid, and a huge number of what the 16 different medicines she’d been were supposed to treat have either disappeared, or at least are far more manageable. If her doctors had really examined her and treated her as a person, instead of as a patient with an eating disorder, she may not have lost the 5 years of life she spent so heavily medicated she couldn’t hold a job and lost the majority of her friends. Not that NO medication was necessary, but the prescribing of so many without looking at her as a whole person definitely caused her a lot of harm.
    This could be me being too much of an idealist, but I think if the general culture of overmedication were eliminated, that would leave the only people taking medicines as the ones who do, honestly, need them. And while there will always be people who don’t think it is ever necessary, the cultural attitudes may be different enough that when the people being diagnosed have a *true* diagnosis, we can foster a better understanding of what that means, what kind of support they need, and a larger degree of empathy towards the people around us.

  • Sarah says:

    I agree completely with you. Unfortunately, there are many doctors who over diagnose or are preassured by the parents to give them something and so I do believe over medicating/diagnosis is an issue. Until its resolved the, ‘Mental illness is a lie,’ people will have all the ignorant ‘truth’ they want to continue their fight. They’re the same people who don’t believe in global warming or think vaccines are the sole cause of autism. There will always be ignorant pricks and it sucks when they’re family. *hugs*

  • Colleen says:

    I’m kind of of two minds about medicating kids. My husband took ADD meds for about half of his childhood. His parents turned to them after exhausting their other possibilities, and he said it made a remarkable difference. His brain suddenly “worked” the way he needed it to. But it all kind of went to shit when he became a teenager–his pediatrician for some reason kept increasing the dosage (perhaps assuming he was getting larger so he needed more?), which ultimately led to huge anxiety issues, getting kicked out of college, and psychiatric care that, in the long run, kept him from his dream job. Since I was around for that latter part but not the benefits of his childhood, I’m a little bit bitter about what was stolen from him by a doctor’s misjudgement. But I have also seen how he struggles sometimes now that he’s not taking any medication (he stopped in college while training for said dream job that he was ultimately DQed from), and I can only imagine how hard it must have been as a kid. I have no doubt the medication made a huge impact on his life and was necessary, I just wish the negative crap could’ve been avoided. Fortunately, if it ever comes down to it with our children, at least I have somebody who has “been there, done that” making the decisions with me.

    What used to really blow my mind was when I worked at a summer camp, we’d get parents who would take their kids off of their medication for the summer to “give them a break”. Umm…a break from fucking what? Inner peace? Balance? Your kid suddenly loses whatever issue you’re medicating when school is out? And seriously, I know they’re not in school during the summer and concentration isn’t *as* important, but you’re sending them to a group activity with rules and safety concerns and taking them off of a medication that was helping them? My husband was horrified when I first complained about a child “on a break”. He couldn’t believe that you’d take away such a benefit from your child for such a nonsense reason.

  • Stacy says:

    I could totally kiss you right now.

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