*This post was our first-ever, published on February 28, 2009.
The post is an email dialog, between myself and my good friend Gregg, about the decision to medicate his son. Or, to not medicate his son. That is the question, still, today, and so we find this post disturbingly relevant.
Sent: Sunday, February 15, 2009 8:19 PM
Subject: RE: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/15/health/research/15psych.html
Found another article about the dangers of medicating children and the lack of drug testing.
Sent it to B, probably shouldn’t have, but during our last conversation she mentioned putting P back on medication. I, of course, said no. I respond to this drug stuff pretty much through emotion and gut feeling. Turns out, I was probably right intellectually as well.
We have a whole generation (maybe even 2 generations) of kids being drugged up to conform. Now we hear about all the dangers. How do we hold the doctors accountable for prescribing this crap without even knowing the full story? When I was growing up, no one was drugged and everybody dealt with the kid that didn’t conform. Why don’t we have the patience now to do the same?
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Don’t you think that’s a little harsh, “drugged up to conform”? I know real children that really benefit from the effects of these medications, children who could not even make it through a school day without the assistance of these pharmaceuticals.
I know your personal experience makes you question the use of these, but why deny help or denigrate the doctors and parents that do the research and make that choice for their own children? Especially when the benefits are overwhelmingly apparent.
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I don’t think it’s harsh for 90% of the population that vary slightly from the “norm.” I realize there are children, and adults, that benefit from use of pharmaceuticals to help them get through the day and calm themselves to be able to participate in everyday life.
However, I believe that the vast majority of child prescription drug users do not need the medication. Pills are pushed, by therapists and psychiatrists, onto parents that don’t do any research but take the word of the professionals. Any child that varies from the norm — in pre-school, school, on the playground — is subject to this treatment. While I realize that teachers are can be overburdened with a large number of kids in their classrooms, it seems that the norm has changed from when I was a kid. Any sort of variance results in innumerable parent-teachers conferences and trips to the therapist, school counselor, etc. Invariably, some sort of diagnosis is handed down and medication is recommended.
What’s a parent to do? Do we all have time during the day to get our kid from school? Go to conferences? No. So we drug ’em up. Schools want an army of well-behaved clones, strictly regimented, all-conforming to an ideal. Were we all drugged up when I was young? Nope. Teachers, parents and other kids just learned to deal with the recalcitrant ones, the strange and weird kids, the troublemakers.
Why does it seem impossible to work with these non-conforming kids today? Why should we want our kids to conform, become an automaton? I don’t think we should and, unfortunately, this decision makes for a very interesting time. As you mentioned, my son is one of the non-conformists (although others would probably use harsher words to describe him). He is extremely intelligent — measurably and anecdotally. Many times, he is smarter than his teachers and can use this against them . . . and does. He can easily manipulate teachers and counselors in order to get what he wants, which usually is to leave school and spend the day at home. Of course, school bores him and he rarely does class work or homework, aces his tests, but still gets poor grades because of the lack of work. From what I understand, during class he finds it difficult to be quiet, has trouble raising his hand to talk and generally causes disruptions.
From first grade, his diagnoses have been ADD, ADHD, Oppositional/Confrontational disorder, Asperger’s, and others I don’t remember. Each time, the therapists and psychiatrists have prescribed a different combination of medications. He’s been on Zyprexa, Risperdol, Adderall, Concerta, Ritalin, Wellbutrin, Strattera, Depakote, Paxil, Zoloft and others in combination and alone. None changed his behavior in beneficial ways.
None made him pay more attention, keep quiet, stay still, and conform. He did, however, suffer serious side affects — weight gain, weight loss, sleeplessness, lethargy, mood swings. So, he never had a diagnosis that “stuck,” all were “educated guesses” by the professionals. The prescriptions were also “guesses” — we changed doses, strength, combinations — all guesses.
Now we learn that most of these drugs have not even been tested on children. We don’t know the long-term effects that they can have on them. How can anyone possibly, consciously subject his or her child to these “educated guesses?” My son’s mother bought the doctors’ lines and rather than pick another fight with her, the school and all the other professionals, I went along.
Now he is living with me and his mother is far away. He is no longer on any medication. Amazingly, his behavior has not changed. Can you believe it? The drugs had no effect on him and the lack of drugs hasn’t turned him into a monster. Conforming in school is still not easy and he has lapses. I get phone calls. I get to leave the office early and get him. I have conferences. The school and I have “behavior plans.” All of this is better than having a drugged up robot living with me.
At his last report card pick-up, one teacher put it best: “School is mostly about conformity. We teach these kids to conform to get them prepared for later life. Your son does not conform. He is very smart — when I need someone to jump-start a discussion or answer a question no one else knows, I turn to him. I always know that he will start an interesting discussion or know the answer. Sometimes I need to rein him in because the other kids have no idea what he is talking about. School just isn’t for him. We’ll help him get through it and then let him find his niche. He’ll probably go on to do something great.”
In some ways, this was comforting to hear. On the other hand, he’s only a freshman.
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“On the other hand, he’s only a freshman.” Ai yi yi!
Listen, it’s difficult for me to discuss this openly with you and not acknowledge my personal feelings — I consider your son my godchild. I’ve known P since he was born and I love him dearly. You and The Wife, B, were two of our closest friends.
Your son did distinguish himself from an early age — his incredible memory for details, his precocious vocabulary, his ability to understand complex games, situations and emotions — were all well beyond his years. Do you remember his comment about the cause of the Iraq War (the first one)? “It’s the oil, dummy!” he said in response to some commentary on NPR. He was seven.
You two were possibly the most loving and dedicated parents we had ever witnessed. And among the first of our friends to be parents. You set the bar high. B nursed him for what, a year? More? When he started solids she pureed fresh, whole foods in the Cuisenaire. She made all his clothes — funky, original, terrific shirts, jackets, and hats — that he loved and loved to wear.
On the weekends we often ran into you and P coming from the museum, or the park, or the city, or some other great adventure, P riding confidently on your shoulders. He was healthy, well loved, well cared for and a delightful kid to be with, really.
Honestly, I can’t remember the sequence of events, the exact circumstances that led to his diagnosis. I think it was after he started pre-school. I do remember asking you if the doctors were aware of how very, very smart he was, and the connection between social issues and high IQ’s in young children.
I remember your search for answers and the pain you BOTH experienced in trying to understand and help P.
G, you can’t have it both ways! You say B “bought the doctor’s lines,” but she was and is a well-educated, well-read, thoughtful person who was trying to help her son. And even if you disagreed with the various suggested treatments, you gave your consent!
ALSO, as involved as you were in his care from minute one, she was the daily, primary caregiver. She was earnestly looking for peace, for her son, and herself. She wanted, just as you did, for him to get along in this world — to make friends, connect with his family, and be happy. That’s not conforming.
(Okay, hope this doesn’t piss you off!)
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Yes, she was the primary caregiver. And she had to listen to the complaints from school every day (EVERY day). I understood her frustration at the time, and, with her, attempted to fight the powers that be. It was very, very difficult and, I believe, too much for B to face every day — and so, she gave up. We attempted to work with the teachers, the counselors, the principal, the therapists, the psychiatrists, and on and on and on. As I wrote earlier, P was never officially diagnosed with anything. We’d try out different diagnoses to get the “right” medications. If that didn’t work, we’d try a different diagnosis.
All this leads me to believe two things: (1) Teachers are overworked and overwhelmed and not trained or supported to deal with any child who may need extra attention and (2) child therapy, psychiatry and medications are nothing but snake oil in an overwhelming number of cases.
A couple of really dedicated teachers have been able to work with P and us to get him to be able to function pretty “normally” day to day. These teachers — maybe two in primary school — were able to spend time speaking with B and me (very important for them to know our input, what works for P and what doesn’t and to let us know what works for them in the class so we can pass it on).
They also were firm but fair with P. They saw his good points and attempted to capitalize on them, use them to make P feel better about himself and, therefore, be less of a nuisance in class. These were exceptional teachers fighting against their own restrictive rules, poor pay and long hours. It’s too bad we don’t nurture all teachers to help them do a job that they really started off believing in and loving.
No therapy, psychiatry or drugs ever helped P. He never got a proper diagnosis because there is nothing wrong to diagnose. The Dr.s all played with P and his issues. Experimented with combinations of medications hoping that one group would work. When he suffered terrible side effects, they just added another medication to counteract it. Games.
Now, we learn that the medications were never approved for children. We have no idea the long-term damage they may have done.
How many kids these days are being medicated? From anecdotal reports — millions. Millions of kids weren’t medicated when I was young. And, although you are in a different, younger generation than I, I bet millions weren’t medicated when you were young either. What changed?
A friend of mine says Pop-Tarts changed the world and started us off in the wrong direction. When Pop-Tarts arrived, we no longer sat around the breakfast table each morning. We didn’t eat breakfast together and start off our day communally. We lost patience. Everything began to have to be done quickly — we could eat on the go. Soon, everything became more efficient, quicker, less time consuming. We all lost patience — in every part of our lives. We no longer are able to accept the non-conforming, out of the ordinary, time-consuming issues. We drug our children to make things easier for ourselves. It is incredibly selfish and shortsighted.
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Now, now, let’s not malign Pop-Tarts! They weren’t agents of change, but rather symptoms of the larger, cultural shift that had already taken place.
Once we moved from agricultural communities to industrial-based ones, the shape and pace of family life was altered forever. As people became slaves to artificial time constraints — i.e., the dictates of our employer-overlords, rather than the natural rhythms of nature and light and dark — we had to drastically reduce the time spent preparing and consuming meals with our families.
Then, we began sending our children out into the world to get the education they once received at home, a mimic of our Industrial work model. (Which, by the way, is slowly being changed back, with the ‘work-at-home’ movement. Ironically now our children commute while we stay home.) When parents were the teachers, variables in learning abilities and personal eccentricities were already known and therefore accepted or, at least, more easily tolerated.
The conformity that school requires in unavoidable, it’s dictated by the volume of children in attendance. Without strict rules of behavior chaos would ensue. And you’re right, our education system does not nurture, encourage or support individual relationships between teachers and students — there’s not enough time.
Now, tie the requirements for federal funding for schools to performance on standardized tests (the infamous Leave No Dollar Behind policy) and you’ve effectively destroyed any remaining autonomy and creative freedom a teacher needs in order to adapt their methods and curriculum to the children placed before them each year.
You might be right after all.
If you create a system that is wholly dependent on the mass conformity of adults and children, you might go to any length to defend it, including drugging up those raging non-conformists in the first grade.