Welcome to Childhood Made Crazy, an interview series that takes a critical look at the current “mental disorders of childhood” model. This series is comprised of interviews with practitioners, parents, and other children’s advocates as well as pieces that investigate fundamental questions in the mental health field. Visit the following page to learn more about the series, to see which interviews are coming, and to learn about the topics under discussion:
Dr. Bonnie Burstow is a professor in Adult Education and Community Development at OISE/University of Toronto, a feminist psychotherapist, an antipsychiatry activist, a socially engaged philosopher, and a leading critic of psychiatry. A highly prolific author, her works include such groundbreaking books as Radical Feminist Therapy and Psychiatry and the Business of Madness. For further more information, see http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/lhae/Faculty_Staff/1594/Bonnie_Burstow.html; for articles by Bonnie, see http://bizomadness.blogspot.ca/
EM: How would you suggest a parent think about being told that his or her child meets the criteria for a mental disorder or a mental illness diagnosis?
BB: First, it is important for you as a parent to know that besides the fact that the diagnoses are hardly discrete but blend into one another, they are so broad that everyone, just by virtue of being a living human being, will meet the criteria for at least two or three psychiatric disorders.
It is likewise important to know that there is not a shred of biological evidence that any of what are called “mental disorders” are even in the vague vicinity of a real disease (for information on what in regular medicine qualifies something as a disease, see Burstow, Psychiatry and the Business of Madness, Chapter Two). Rather they are ways of being, of thinking, and of acting that professional others have come to pathologize, then list in their official book of disorders — the DSM.
As such, despite how the professional who provided this diagnosis may think about it and/or may be encouraging you to think about it, or how any written material that he has handed you constructs it, all that you have really discovered here is that your child is a member of the human race who has happened to bump into a psychiatrist.
The fact that s/he may well be experiencing severe difficulties does not alter this reality. We all have difficulties in life. Such is the nature of being alive. What compounds the problem is that there has been a huge upsurge in declaring children “mentally ill”, which opens the door to so-called treatment (something in the interest of the industries which profit from it).
None of this makes these diagnoses meaningful. Your child is not a host of a mysterious disease entity, not “schizophrenic,” not a classical case of “conduct disorder” but is the same wondrous complex kid s/he was before, moreover, someone who can have as good a life as any, irrespective of whether or not s/he currently feels troubled or even strikes you as psychotic. What is critical here is that you continue to regard your child accordingly.
EM: How would you suggest a parent think about being told that his or her child ought to go on one or more than one psychiatric medication for his or her diagnosed mental disorder or mental illness?
BB: Such advice is so routine as to be "knee-jerk,” and regardless, I would suggest regarding it as inherently problematic.
Correspondingly, I would alert you to the fact that just as the diagnoses have no validity, neither have the drugs. For example, despite claims to the contrary — and the pharmaceutical companies with whom these claims originate, note, are operating out of vested self-interest — the drugs are not specific to the “conditions” that they allegedly “ treat." Moreover, they have been proven to do way more harm that good.
Correspondingly, as opposed to addressing chemical imbalances — and there is no proof that people so labeled actually have chemical imbalances — quite the opposite, they create imbalances. They also impair thinking and feeling. And in the long run minimally, they cause irreparable brain damage. They are particularly harmful to children for the child’s brain is still in the process of developing.
Now you might be tempted to accept this as a reasonable tradeoff as long as these substances help with emotional distress. While they potentially can, what you need to be aware of here, is that your child can get far better help without incurring damage. Additionally, the so-called help is intimately linked with the damage caused, and beyond that, is enormously limited.
What relates to this, in effectiveness studies, it has been shown that such drugs do not even outperform innocuous substances like antihistamines. Moreover, despite claims to the contrary, they themselves cause emotional problems — and of such huge proportion that whole countries have taken action against them. In the UK, for example, a high percentage of the antidepressants have been officially banned for use with children under 18 because suicide has been shown to be a “side effect.”
By the same token it has been shown that the stimulants (the drugs routinely prescribed to children diagnosed with attention deficit disorder) cause mania and suicidal impulses. Moreover, they stunt growth. Now I am aware that while most parents have qualms about the drugs, the average parent worries about letting their child down if they do not follow “the doctor’s orders.” Understandable. However, your child’s safety is dependent on moving beyond this default mode.
EM: What if a parent currently has a child in treatment for a mental disorder? How should he or she monitor the treatment regimen and/or communicate with mental health professionals involved?
BB: That depends on exactly what is meant by “treatment.” If the “treatment” consists of psychotherapy (talk therapy) then check in at least periodically that your child is feeling heard, that nothing untoward is happening, and that s/he wants to continue.
If your child does not wish to continue, support the decision. If your child is feeling unheard, you might phone the therapist and ask for an appointment, perhaps suggest that the three of you meet together and see if you can be of help in the process.
On the other hand, if “treatment” means psychiatric drugs — and please see my comments on psychiatric drugs above — beyond doing what I have already outlined, check in with your child on a highly regular basis to ensure that this is truly what s/he wants.
At the same time on a daily basis keep a close eye for concrete signs that harm is being done. Examples of what to watch for are deepening depression, anxiety, agitation, flattened affect, exhaustion, terror, restlessness, slurring of words, inability to concentrate, memory problems, general cognitive impairment, poor coordination, loss of appetite, and “crashing”. And do arrange for a meeting to discuss whichever of these you see (if mania or extreme agitation set in, take this as an absolute emergency).
Examples of what you have every right to request are: a drug with less “side effects,” fewer drugs, a lower dose, help with gradual withdrawal, and suggestions of non-medical “alternatives”.
EM: What if a parent has a child who is taking psychiatric drugs and the child appears to be having adverse effects to those drugs or whose situation appears to worsening? What would you suggest the parent do?
BB: Going off the drug should be very seriously considered—and going off the drug should not automatically or even optimally mean taking a different one (though this is likely what your doctor will assume and encourage).
More generally, this is an excellent time to discuss the child’s options with them, including altering the treatment, and total (though once again, very gradual) withdrawal. Would s/he prefer just talking to someone (in which case arranging for empathic counselling might make sense)? How about a lower dose?
It is likewise critical to discuss the adverse effects with the doctor as they arise. If the adverse effects are extreme agitation or mania, this signals an emergency, so realize that there is no time to lose. More generally, do read up on the adverse effects before conversing with the doctor.
Correspondingly, if the doctor demonstrates very little openness to what you are suggesting or you are otherwise dissatisfied with the responses, give yourself permission to change physicians. Whatever you do, do keep talking with your child (the one expert present that people tend to ignore). Assume in this regard that your child has special knowledge of what s/he is experiencing and that your child’s “knowing” needs to be heeded.
Finally, if you have not already educated yourself about the drugs (by which I mean reading something other than the standard pharmaceutical industry propaganda), start educating yourself now. Good resources are books by researcher/critics like Breggin, also websites like ssristories.org. Also, whether your child is staying on the drug or withdrawing, continue monitoring reactions.
Issues that you need to distinguish between in the process are: the return of the emotional difficulties with which your daughter or son struggled prior to starting the drug, the intensification of the problems that set in with the drugs, and totally new emotional and physical problems. Finally, a reminder —if your child can manage without the drugs and you can safely get your child off them, helping make this happen may well be the greatest parental gift that you will ever have the chance to bestow.
EM: In what ways might a parent help his or her child who is experiencing emotional difficulties in addition to, or different from, seeking traditional psychotherapy and/or psychopharmacology?
BB: On a regular basis, spend lots of time, including lots of quality time, with your child. Encourage your child to talk about the problems bothering him/her. Ways to facilitate this include: showing an interest whenever s/he brings up problems, also as appropriate, asking questions and making comments like, “You’re looking sad these days. I remember the last time you were looking so sad, that kid at school was bullying you. Is anyone bullying you now?” Or “Is anything else bothering you at school? At home?”
Be sure to empathize. Also, brainstorm solutions. Moreover, be ready to advocate on your child’s behalf. Also be on the lookout for and do whatever is necessary to put a stop to any kind of abuse. The point here is that while psychiatry habitually decontextualizes and talks about “mental diseases" as if they were entities inside a person, emotional problems are not simply something “inside” but are intimately linked with external circumstances, with abuse itself, I would add, frequently underlying what may just look like “disturbed" or “bad” behavior.
Find out what your child thinks would help and seriously entertain whatever it is. Intercede with other authorities as necessary. Find playful ways to explore issues and solutions together — for play is a primary avenue through which children express themselves. Reassure your child that what s/he is feeling is “normal.” Other avenues for help include exercise classes, yoga, self-defense classes, wilderness trips, parent-run support groups, and simply better nutrition.
As for professional help — and I name it last for we have been so socialized to see this as essential that we resort to it far too often — if you feel the need for it, there are a number of less conventional options that many have found helpful, that are comparatively safe, and in the case of several, are common enough that they should be easy to locate — homeopathy, Open Dialogue services, play therapy, art therapy, feminist therapy, for example (with the latter informed by the understanding that gender and gender oppression play a major role in people’s seemingly private troubles, as do racism, homophobia, and transphobia).
Though harder to access, you might consider as well practices like image theatre and other forms of theatre of the oppressed. A few basic principles here: For the most part: a) Non-medical is better than medical (psychologists and social workers are examples of non-medical “mental health” workers); b) independent practitioners are better than people firmly ensconced within the “mental health” system; and c) more creative, holistic, participatory, and egalitarian approaches are preferable.
EM: What would you like to say to a parent whose child is in difficulty and who would like to put her trust in the current mental health system?
BB: Read/re-read my answers to questions 1-5, then with aids such as these, problematize rather than trust the system. While you may or may not find yourself accessing some part of the current “mental health system” on behalf of your child, minimally do so with the awareness that the system is dangerous, that the vast majority of its tenets and approaches lack validity, and that they have been shown to cause massive harm.
Also remember, that unless the professional helper to whom you turn is a non-medical person who is in private practice (generally, albeit not invariably, a far safer option), there is a very real danger that your child will get gobbled up by parts of the system that you are intent on avoiding — never forget, in this regard, that processes can "change on a dime”, moreover what begins as voluntary will not necessarily remain so.
For example, if you seek out an independent psychiatrist in private practice for your child with the idea of consensual talk therapy happening, please note, that you are not just seeking out any therapist but someone who still wields incredible power as well as someone whose initial training is to view life problems as medical. As such, should at some point the psychiatrist take alarm, and should he be able to demonstrate to others that the relevant “criteria" are satisfied, there is nothing stopping this professional from "hospitalizing” your child contrary to your wishes and to what you thought that you had set in motion.
Bottom line: You are dealing with people and with a system that wield incredible power. And while for sure there are some kind and helpful people tucked away in it, the system per se and the power that accompanies it are in no way something to trust. Correspondingly, any engagement that you may (or may not) have with it needs to be predicated on precisely that knowledge.
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