Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Day 9: Sharna Olfman on Child Mental Health Controversies

The future of mental health interview series, day 9

Eric Maisel
Source: Eric Maisel

The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.


Interview with Sharna Olfman

Children are bearing the brunt of our illegitimate “mental disorder” paradigm. When you turn the ordinary experiences of childhood into “symptoms of mental disorders” and then announce (and demand) that these “disorders” must be “treated with psychiatric medication,” you have arrived at our current horrible and unconscionable place. Sharna Olfman speaks eloquently on these issues.

EM: You are a Professor of Psychology at Point Park University, a psychotherapist, and the editor/author of a book series with Praeger Press called Childhood in America. Let's begin with your latest book: The Science and Pseudoscience of Children's Mental Health. What are the main conclusions?

SO: Parents have been led to believe that popular childhood diagnoses such as ADHD and Bipolar Disorder are well understood illnesses that can be effectively treated with drugs that correct underlying chemical imbalances in the brain. In fact, even the former director of the NIMH, Dr. Thomas Insel has stated publicly that DSM diagnoses like these are premised on questionable science. Symptom clusters such as hyperactivity, impulsivity and poor attention, can no more be said to be illnesses than fever or rash. Furthermore, not a single DSM diagnosis has been credibly linked to a chemical imbalance. While these widely held and highly persuasive beliefs are mere pseudoscience, there is a rich body of genetic and brain research with far reaching implications for diagnosis and treatment that has gone under the radar. Below are some of the findings discussed in Science and Pseudoscience:

+ Two of the world’s leading environmental scientists, Philip Landrigan and Phillipe Grandjean, have identified 1,000 neurotoxins, that are either used in or are byproducts of industry, that pose a direct threat to the developing brains of fetuses and young children. Several of these toxins have proven links to symptoms associated with ADHD, Autism and Learning Disabilities.

+ Diets that are deficient in micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) essential for optimal brain development have also been linked to children’s psychological disturbances. This research underscores the importance of healthy diet and nutritional supplements for maintaining optimal mental health.

+ Epigenetics – the latest iteration in the field of genetics – informs us that environments can alter gene expression. In consequence, the hunt for the ‘bad’ gene is now considered 20th century science. An example of an epigenetic process that is directly relevant to children’s mental health is that exposure to high levels of stress during fetal and infant development can epigenetically alter regions of the brain that help us to cope with anxiety and impulse control.

+ Research on the enteric nervous system (the neurons that innervate the digestive system) and its accompanying microbiome has revolutionized research on Autism, as has functional neurology with its emphasis on the importance of synchrony among different regions of the brain (imagine an orchestra in which all musicians are playing well but the first violinist is playing a half tempo slower than the other musicians). These areas of research will help solve the mystery of the explosive increase in Autism diagnoses and pave the way for effective approaches to treatment.

EM: You have published several books that highlight the heavy reliance on psychiatric medication in treating children. These include Drugging Our Children, No Child Left Different and Bipolar Children. What are your thoughts about psychiatric medication and children's emotional and mental health?

SO: This is tragically a timely question. Just when it seemed that things couldn’t get worse, researchers have recently noted a steep rise in the number of children being prescribed antipsychotics under 2 years of age. Drug prescriptions for children are more often than not premised on the false assumption that they have chemical imbalances. In consequence the real cause of their suffering, whether it be environmental or biological, goes unseen and untreated. If medication provided children with much needed symptom relief without adverse effects then we might justify its use. Parents and children have a right to be informed about adverse long-term effects of the medications that are so readily prescribed, especially when effective therapies that do no harm are available.

EM: Other titles in the series are All Work and No Play, Childhood Lost and The Sexualization of Childhood. What is your sense of the relationship between society and individual emotional and mental health?

SO: In the early 2000s, when my husband and I were looking for a suitable kindergarten for our first child, we were struck by how dramatically kindergarten education had changed from the time we were young children. No longer was it a ‘children’s garden’ with a focus on social, emotional and creative development. It occurred to me that immersing an entire cohort of children into developmentally insensitive educational environments was related to the steep rise in ADHD and learning disability diagnoses. In Childhood Lost, I focused on a broad range of trends in American culture that make it unduly challenging for families to meet children’s developmental imperatives. For example; the ways in which immersion in screen technologies erode children’s connections to nature and undermine parental values, the impact of violent and sexualized programming on children’s understanding of themselves and their world, and the repercussions of the dearth of public policies in support of families such as adequate maternity leave and subsidized daycare.

EM: If the parent of a young child or adolescent in distress came to you seeking advice about where he or she should turn, what would you recommend?

SO: I think that parents’ confidence in their own wisdom has been shaken by expert advice. Most parents understand the merits of a loving home, good nutrition, fresh air, and capping the amount of time children spend aimlessly staring at screens. Intuitively, they know that children experience intense emotions, but lack the impulse control and experience with which to interpret and manage them. But mental health professionals have pathologized children’s feelings! Sadness becomes depression, rage becomes conduct disorder, elation morphs into bipolar disorder. At the same time, many children are struggling with very real symptoms that are silenced with drugs while the underlying issues are left to fester. Parents have a right to information about the limits and risks of drug therapies. They need to be reassured about the power of loving relationships, good nutrition, and time spent away from screens and out of doors. They need to be educated about the consequences of exposures to ubiquitous developmental neurotoxins such as pesticides in food, fluoride in water, pthalates in plastic and Bisphenol A in cans to name but a few. While parents can address some of these issues independently, with the support of therapists and/or holistic health care professionals, some of the solutions must be top down. Our government must give our regulatory bodies, the FDA and the EPA the autonomy they need to keep children safe from neurotoxic chemicals, and pay more than lip service to improving public policies such as humane maternity leave and subsidized childcare. We must take proactive measures to keep our children healthy, rather than stemming the tide of an epidemic of childhood mental illness.


Sharna Olfman, Ph.D. is a professor of clinical and developmental psychology at Point Park University and a psychologist in private practice. She is the editor/author of the Childhood in America book series for Praeger Publishers. Her books include The Science and Pseudoscience of Children’s Mental Health: Cutting Edge Research and Treatment (2015), Drugging Our Children (coedited with Brent Robbins, 2012), The Sexualization of Childhood (2008), Bipolar Children (2007), No Child Left Different (2006), Child Honoring: How to Turn This World Around (coedited with Raffi Cavoukian, 2006), Childhood Lost (2005), and All Work and No Play (2003). Dr. Olfman has written and lectured internationally on the subjects of children’s mental health and parenting. She was the founder and director of the annual Childhood and Society Symposium, a multidisciplinary think tank on childhood advocacy, from 2001 to 2008.


Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of 40+ books, among them The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Life Purpose Boot Camp and The Van Gogh Blues. Write Dr. Maisel at, visit him at

To learn more about and/or to purchase The Future of Mental Health, visit here.

To see the complete roster of interview guests, please visit here:

More from Eric R. Maisel Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Eric R. Maisel Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today