We've Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication/Judith Warner: Reflections

Friday, September 24, 2010

I wrote last evening of spending time in the company of people I admire—of clients who become and remain friends.  That post was prompted, in part, by the all-employee meeting conducted by Shire Pharmaceuticals—an event that took place beneath a wide, white tent on a morning that recalled summer far more than it augured fall.

Judith Warner—bestselling author of Perfect Madness, former New York Times blogger, once a special foreign correspondent for Newsweek—was among those who, as an invited guest, made that all-employee meeting so special.  Her newest book, We've Got Issues, released earlier this year, tells the story of Warner's journey as a journalist who had once assumed, like so many others have, that we are a nation dangerously prone to over-diagnosing and -medicating our children.  This was the state of things, a fact, a reality so transparent that she'd agreed to write an entire book about it.  She'd signed a contract called "UNTITLED on Affluent Parents and Neurotic Kids." She was set to collect her arsenal of facts in support of her theory that "the kids we saw making the rounds of doctors and therapies were no more than canaries in the coal mine, showing the first-line symptoms of the toxicology of our pathological age."  Her book would be on the shelves in but a few years' time.

Except.  Except sometimes writing is the only path toward knowing, and the harder Warner worked to prove her point, to sway her audience, the more quicksandish her proposal became.  In her quest to meet parents who proved her point about the desire for quick diagnoses and easy fixes, for drugs that could turn report-card Cs into stellar As or, perhaps, ease the overscheduled child into one more resume-building activity, she encountered instead the heartbreak of those who were watching their children struggle and who did not know where to turn. She found herself jolted by questions that didn't have easy, or obvious, answers.  She discovered a fact that began to haunt her:  "Five percent of kids in America take psychotropic drugs.  Five to 20 percent have psychiatric issues.  That, according to my math, just doesn't add up to a pattern of gross overmedication."

What do you do when the argument you seek to make (you promised to make) is porous?  What do you do when your own world view can't be supported by the facts?  If you are a writer with the integrity of Judith Warner, you stand back, reassess, look harder.  You write a book with a brand new title, and you chart new journalistic territory by writing passages such as these:
If we live in a time when the brains of non-ADHD kids are shutting down from mental overload, if we live in an era when even our young winners are "a bit less human," the it's fair to say that normal life is now "sick."  But that's using the word "sick" as a value judgment, not a medical category, and it's urgently important not to confound the two.  For to do so does a real injustice to children with mental health issues and their parents, and also makes improving empathy and getting better help for those children all but impossible.
The issues are tangled, and complex.  Psychotropic drugs can be abused; sometimes they are.  But by and large, Warner writes, it's time for all of us to bring more compassion to this issue, and less headline-borrowing judgment.  There is no love like a parent's for a child.  We are all, in our way, working toward rightness—hoping to be heard, hoping to be helped, hoping that education, therapy, and science (for it takes all three) can keep our children safe.


Sherry said...

Brava, Judith Warner. Thanks for this post, Beth.

Anna Lefler said...

Well, that's just fascinating. I was certain that would have been a slam-dunk book to write; I'm so surprised to learn otherwise.

Very, very interesting indeed.

:-) A.

Becca said...

I'm really surprised to hear this, and will look at this book with great interest.

Lilian Nattel said...

I'm also surprised and fascinated. Those kids on meds are canaries but their signal is not about the meds, it seems, but about our social values. If there is an ordinary sickness in the way kids are being raised and in the way their families are living, despite good intentions, then that sickness needs to be addressed.

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