Man, Have We Got Issues…Regarding Medication

Books GeekMom

News segment on Arizona teacher fired for “Have you drugged your kid?” bumper sticker.

One of the things that I really get excited about these days is putting in a request to a publisher for a book that I’d like to review for GeekMom and then RECEIVING A COPY OF THE BOOK. Thrill would not be an understatement–which is one of the reasons that I strongly suspect that I am writing for the right blog…

A couple of weeks back I put in a request for Judith Warner’s latest book We’ve Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication and immediately upon receipt dove right in. I was particularly interested in this book because one of my two day-jobs is as a “parent-support worker” who partners with families raising children with social, emotional and behavioral challenges (which includes diagnoses ranging from anxiety, depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and mood disorder through to Asperger’s Syndrome, Tourette’s Syndrome, bipolar disorder and childhood-onset schizophrenia).

In this capacity, I facilitate support groups for caregivers, link my families to appropriate services and classes, and sit in on Committee on Special Education meetings to support parents as they advocate on behalf of their children with their school districts.  The primary criteria I had to meet to get this job was that I, too, had to be a parent of a child with a diagnosis (I had to “get it”)–though any experience I had negotiating special education law, organizing family picnics and game nights, speaking to state legislators, handling food for a food pantry, or understanding the rules involved in accessing Medicaid, respite, or case-management services also worked in my favor.

Once I started reading We Have Issues, however, I quickly realized that what I’d thought was a strength was also a vulnerability: the people and issues in Warner’s book were my people, my issues–and frankly, I wasn’t crazy about Warner’s initial take on things.

To be fair, the book Warner initially set out to write was very different from the one that she ultimately completed. Fresh from the success of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, Warner believed that she was going to expand on previously-explored themes. Perfect Madness had detailed how American culture was making (middle class) mothers unnecessarily anxious; this subsequent book would address an analogous perspective Warner had seen repeatedly hashed out in the media regarding children:

Children were being grossly over-medicated with dangerous  and denaturing chemicals. The schools, the government, the drug companies, and psychiatrists had become a nefarious force bearing down on parents, corrupting childhood, and poisoning individual children’s lives. And if there was anything truly going wrong with America’s kids, it was their parents, the culture they were buying into, and the insane pressures of their pathological world.

In other words: Warner initially suspected that the childhood “diagnoses du jour”–AD/HD, Asperger’s, bipolar, etc.–weren’t real, complex disorders requiring therapeutic intervention, but were, instead, the product of unrealistic expectations, an over-emphasis in our schools on standardized testing, or “lazy parenting” that were being heaped on otherwise normal (though perhaps intense) children.

It’s not the kids (this argument goes), its the environment.

Additionally, if the diagnoses themselves are not legitimate, what implications does that have for the accepted practice of medicating identified children? Could it be that we are drugging children unnecessarily?

Two years into her project, however, Warner found that she could not write the book she’d initially agreed upon with her editor. Once she actually looked beyond the television soundbites and dove into the research,  questioned the talking heads and spoke directly with affected families, she found a far more nuanced set of stories, including:

  • THE GENETIC STORY: Parents who had suffered through childhoods of self-blame and confusion, who were only properly diagnosed themselves in adulthood, often as a result of their children’s diagnostic journey;
  • THE EDUCATION STORY: Families fighting with school districts reluctant to provide expensive, intensive, under-funded but therapeutically-necessary special-education services to a group of students they had previously allowed to largely “fall through the cracks”;
  • THE FAMILY STORY: Husbands and wives who, in their different abilities to come to terms with their children’s diagnoses, experienced tremendous and sometimes irreparable marital strain, as well as social isolation;
  • THE MEDICAL-CONSULTANT STORY: Doctors who on television painted damning sound-bite portraits of parents over-eager to medicate their children, but in personal interviews with Warner claimed they were  “quoted out of context” and stated that parents rarely came easily to the decision to medicate their children;
  • THE MEDICAL-ACCESS STORY: A children’s mental health system that is under-staffed, under-compensated, over-burdened and difficult to access (i.e., in North Carolina, one survey showed that only 2 percent of the children with significant emotional and behavioral disorders in the state were being seen by mental health specialists).

Additionally, what Warner found instead of a wanton willingness on the part of parents to medicate was that study after study showed:

Giving a child psychotropic medication goes deeply against the grain for most parents. Medication is a mark of a lack of control, a definitive sign that a parent can’t, through unconditional love or goodwill or connection or attachment or structure, create a perfect universe that will prevent his or her child’s illness or disorder.

Quite frankly, while I am glad that Warner wrote the book that she ultimately did, I had a difficult, demoralizing time reading about her initial premise. Here was an author that was a well-educated, humanities-studying, articulate, suburban mom–in short, someone very like myself–and it took her two years of intense research to let go of her preconceived perceptions and begin to understand the challenges involved in caring for children with social, emotional and behavioral diagnoses. How will our culture ever adequately reframe the “stories” I cited above and ask lawmakers and policymakers to begin to work on much-needed solutions when the learning curve to understanding seems so very long?

Through work, I knew that the first week of May is National Children’s Mental Health week. After I finished the book, I decided to put the review on the back burner until late April in order to give myself some time to assess whether my dismay was justified.

However, best laid plans…last weekend, I came across an article ostensibly debating the free-speech rights of a teacher in Arizona who was fired after parents complained about one of the 61 bumper stickers adorning her car:

“Have you drugged your kid today?”

As the teacher in question explained to television station KPHO, “It’s kind of a criticism of us tending to over-medicate hyperactive kids who might not need those medications…I just like the ability to take a controversial topic and sum it up in one clever line. I’m an English teacher; that’s what I do.”

All that I can think in response to this teacher, this type of thinking, is to say that Warner’s book has gone on sale at Amazon. Currently, it is priced at $2.21 for the hardcover–if you’re able to qualify for free shipping with other purchases, that’s $1.74 less than a “Have you drugged your kid today?” bumper sticker from Zazzle. And a great deal more nuanced and informative.


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7 thoughts on “Man, Have We Got Issues…Regarding Medication

  1. Andrea, I cannot thank you enough for writing this nuanced, thoughtful post about how we treat our children with special needs. While there are some instances of children medicated for the usual soundbite reasons, there are a great many more children who do not receive the services they need in order to lead a dignified existence.

    Unfortunately, this is not a very compassionate time in our cultural discourse so I do not think this will get any better any time soon.

  2. It’s a challenging proposition, getting people to rethink their beliefs on what it means to keep children safe and healthy. I think the idea of having a child with a diagnosis is frightening to people and that they want to believe that they can control outcomes in some way because they love their children and have a need to feel like they can protect them from the frightening stuff. We’ve gotta just keep putting the right message out there, Miranda. That’s all we can do.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this book with us, Andrea! I’ve always been puzzled by just the attitude you describe, and I hear it all the time, especially by people editorializing on TV or in articles. It will be really interesting (and satisfying!) to read of someone who started out on that path, then found enough overwhelming evidence that she couldn’t help but change her mind. And at less than $3.00! I’m off to order my copy!

  4. I fall smack in the middle of this argument. I understand as well as I think that I’m able, not having a special needs child myself, the desire to ensure or assist your child in having as normal a life as possible. If medication is required, well then so be it. But on the flip side I work with children (and their parents) who are often quick to medicate or run to the doctor. Sniffles clearly require Mucinex and a particularly stubborn child given no boundaries is ADHD thus clearly needs meds to control him. I think its a matter of a couple bad apples spoil the barrel. Thank you for this article. Very well expressed.

  5. As a sibling of a man with special needs that resulted my parents placing him in an medical institution for care (where they visit him regularly), as an adult with his own psychological foibles, and as a parent, I found your article both thoughtful, and thought provoking. The book is of interest. And it reaffirms for me the bumper sticker I have which derides bumper stickers.

  6. I’m ADD with a side order of depression and anxiety. My oldest is going to be tested for dyslexia again this year, at her teacher’s suggestion. Last year’s results were “at grade level” despite everything else about her testing well above grade level. That means no help, no official diagnosis, nothing. Do you know how strange it feels to hope my child fails a test? But I’m hoping that, so we can get some answers.

    The problem is, the stigmas tied to any mental or learning disability are HUGE. The book that Warner set out to write would only have added to the pile of parent-blaming rhetoric that makes it so difficult to get help for kids who need it. No one tells parents that if they were ‘tougher on that kid they could read the board, why are you asking for glasses?’ But the same logic applied to a brain that can’t focus…

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