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:
Sande Roberts is the author of We Need to Talk About Suicide. Roberts has been in the crisis and behavioral health field for over twenty-five years. She has a master’s degree in psychology and is a certified trainer of trainers in suicide prevention and crisis intervention by the State of California Department of Mental Health. As a board member of the Arizona Association for Conflict Resolution, she continues to help schools implement peer led programs.
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?
SR: I would hope they would look at it as an exploration rather than a sentence. Seek information on what has and has not been working for those who exhibit similar behavioral patterns. Read up on the proposed diagnosis and treatment recommendations. Do research on support groups and find out what they’re doing to help identify and address similar behaviors.
SR: One of my grandsons is a Romanian Orphanage baby. This in itself has a laundry list of challenges. He was two years old when brought to his new home, twenty years ago. During the first few years the parents observed he was physically aggressive and seldom huggable, later diagnosed as an attachment disorder. He was hyperactive and struggled to concentrate.
He was enrolled in sports early on. He especially loved soccer and baseball, playing actively and fearlessly.
A therapist recommended a reward system. A psychiatrist prescribed Ritalin. The reward system worked for a week. My son-in-law was against medicating. I suggested we go to my grandson’s baseball games and observe him closely for any of the criteria signs. We noted multiple challenges including an inability to settle on ways to follow the action. The checklist made it easy for a decision to try the Ritalin.
The difference was dramatic. He was able to follow the play, and his own participation was dramatically improved.
His teachers had conferences with the parents – noting he was less disruptive and easier to manage in the classroom. This lasted until the Ritalin (and other medications) was no longer effective. Maybe it was a case of biochemical adaptation, needing more or possibly something different to manage the return of increasingly challenging behaviors.
In spite of his hyperactive behavior and physical aggressiveness he graduated from high school. Playing baseball kept him compliant to maintain grades and manage his behavior until he decided it was easier to manage with drugs and alcohol. Four years later, at age 22, he is in and out of rehab.
EM: As someone who works with teens in distress, which sorts of things seem to help the most?
SR: I’ve worked with teens in various settings since 1990. Programs that work are ones where the youth themselves are mentored and taught skills to help themselves and their friends.
The teen years are challenging and confusing. Youth are experiencing dramatic changes in their bodies, relationships, limits, and values. Peer pressure, rebellion, and curiosity frequently guide decisions. This is a time when people are wondering if the next suicidal, homicidal, or physically or emotionally bullied teen they hear about in the news will be someone they know: someone who lives next door, sits across the aisle at school, or is related to them.
Peer-led teen programs have been around for a long time. Teens talk to, listen to, and believe other teens long before they consult with an adult. Schools with peer helper and conflict resolution programs have teens who are trained in peer education, leadership, listening and helping skills. The focus is identification and early intervention. My personal experience has been that teens become enabled to help themselves and their peers cope with a mega-list of relevant issues, including but not limited to: suicide, violence on campus and in the community, intergenerational conflicts, relationship breakups, dangerous relationships, scholastic pressure, teen sexuality, loneliness, real or imagined guilt and/or shame, revenge, drug and alcohol abuse, cultural tension and low self-esteem.
For parents it’s natural to want to solve problems for their children as well as for close friends and family members. Parents may become frightened by the expression of their children’s more intense emotions and respond with strong disbelief or anger, and try to deflect their concerns with statements that cut off communication rather than helping.
In addition to peer helper programs, teens can be helped by being connected with responsible adults including those in big bother/big sister types of mentoring programs.
Parenting is challenging under the best of circumstances even if parents weren’t dealing with their own broad spectrum of critical issues. Parents of teens and young adults are often generationally sandwiched between the child and their own parents.
EM: You’ve written We Need To Talk About Suicide. What might parents get from that book that might help them?
SR: My book, We Need to Talk About Suicide, helps parents understand and communicate with their children as well as with others they care about including friends and family members. It helps clarify information about this difficult-to-comprehend topic, and they can walk away with a better ability to recognize warning signs, along with more effective ways to communicate, including things to say and things to not say. Additionally, I have been told by those who have experienced a tragic loss, that the book helped them have some closure.
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