Are Kids Overmedicated, Really? Interview With Judith Warner, Author of We've Got Issues
This week I sent my daughter off to first grade. She's a happy, well adjusted kid. Sort of not at all like I was.
About four years ago, I finally started taking my mental health seriously and began taking antidepressants and seeing a new therapist, the fourth I'd seen as an adult. He was the first therapist who was really able to help me, to explain how my brain worked and why it was downloading so much anxiety into my days. I began to get better in a rapid progression that sped up as I began doing visualizations and changing the way I felt morally about my own emotions.
I didn't give any of this much thought when I called Judith Warner, an author whom I have loved ever since I read her first book, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.
I was introduced to her by Joanne Bamberger of PunditMom (she did not ask me to shill, but I will: Joanne has a book called PunditMom coming out in January that is available for pre-order now, see, Joanne? karma). I immediately asked Judith if I could interview her about her new book, We've Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication. I did not realize at the time how eye-opening the experience would be.
I asked Judith what her book was about, and she said it was *supposed* to be about how parents were over-medicating their perfectly fine if exuberant children. But, um, that's not what it turned out to be about at all. She said:
"It's about children's mental health issues. I was given an assignment in 2004 to write a book about how kids were being over-diagnosed and over-competitive parents were drugging their kids. I started working on it and had a feeling that was wrong -- I couldn't find numbers to back any of that up, I couldn't find experts to agree with it.
"The breakthrough moment came when I was sitting in our local coffeehouse reading a book on mental illness. I saw the anti-psychology chapter on the 1960s -- I realized I was buying into ideological crap I'd swallowed in the 1980s that I thought I'd gotten rid of. I realized I had no idea what I was talking about, and if I was going to write my book, I'd have to do it all over from scratch and learn from the ground up."
In other words, Judith no longer thinks kids are getting medicated improperly. She thinks there are kids out there with very real mental illness, that there have always been kids out there with mental illness. We're just diagnosing it better now.
What, I asked, did the parents think when she reached out to them? She responded:
"The parents were very comfortable talking to me about it -- I put the word out, e-mailed them something about my thinking -- most of them had followed the same trajectory from doubt to belief, from feeling like people were trying to pathologize their kids to thinking there was something wrong and there was help to be gotten. They were glad someone was going to express what they were going through and cut through the prejudice.
"Mental health issues are extremely common, but a lot of people are not in touch with what's going on with themselves. The topic makes them really, really uncomfortable. Everyone who I talked to was resistant to the idea when it came to their own kids -- they only came around when things got so bad that they realized they had to act in order to help their own kids."
Still, no bells went off for me. I asked why the media tries to convince us that we're over-medicating our kids? That every kid is on Ritalin?
"The storyline that doctors and the drug companies and schools are out to medicate our kids -- it resonates with us, because we know we live in a crazy society with unrealistic and unfair expectations of kids. The idea that there's nothing wrong with the kid, the problems are with us -- it's very convincing. While that stuff may be bad, it's not bad enough to create a kid with ADD. You're not going to create an anxiety disorder. Even though medicine moved away from the idea that parents create their kids' problems, the culture hasn't really done so. If the kid has problems, something wrong with the parents is going to be default explanation."
I hung up, thinking how nice Judith was and such a good writer, and man how frustrating would it be to have to can your book halfway through and start over? Then I opened her book and began reading.
And I hit page 36.
The idea that these kids with psychiatric issues have suddenly sprung up from nowhere is a mainstay of the naysayer population.
Yet it just isn't true that kids didn't have mental health issues before. The problems existed, even if the diagnoses didn't. Plenty of adults remember having them. In 2005, in fact, a major national survey found that fully half of the adults with mental health disorders recalled starting to suffer from their symptoms by the time they were fourteen. The median age of onset for anxiety and "impulse control disorders" was age eleven.
And then I started crying.
I was one of those kids. I have clear memories of acute anxiety and depression starting around third grade, which is what -- eight? It peaked at 17 with anorexia. There's a reason my childhood memories are a jumbled mess of sunlit happiness and self-hatred. I had every mental problem I am overcoming now when I was just a kid.
I wanted to hug the little Rita, make it better. Make it go away. How would my life have been different had I had my anxiety and depression under control? How much less pain might I have caused my parents and sister and friends?
And so, I read the rest of the book, and I'm writing this post, and I'm asking you to be open-minded about all manners of mental illness in kids.
Does your child exhibit signs of mental illness? Would you medicate your child if he or she did?