Monday, 19 April 2010

A Rant about "America's Medicated Children"

I watched BBC2’s “America’s Medicated Kids” presented by Louis Theroux on the iPlayer last night and whilst I wasn’t unsurprised at what I saw, (Why make a programme about medicated kids if there isn’t what we as “normal people” would believe to be a problem?) I was enormously saddened by the fact that the very first thing parents and doctors in the USA turn to, if they have a child whom THEY perceive as being different or difficult, is medication.

I was, as I always am when watching his programmes, incredibly impressed by Louis Theroux’s ability to handle so vast a subject so sensitively and manage to condense it into a 59 minute programme. How he manages to speak to such stupid, stupid people and keep his cool, I will never know. The more I watched these selfish people, who find rearing children just a little bit too difficult, the more I wanted to hit them.

The most salient line of the programme was, for me, the gentle reminder Louis gave to the viewer about just how much power parents have over their children. Something I am ever conscious of as a mother. I have Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” pinned to the notice board in my office to remind me every single day not to mess around with my child’s head – because I could if I wanted to ... so can all parents – but why on earth would we?

How DARE these inadequate people place the calm-running of their own lives above what is actually best for their children. Is it the US culture that causes this? I suspect there are many parents in most countries who would take the easy option of having a drugged child to manipulate and mould to their own convenience, if they could – but we were only privy to US parents in Theroux’s programme.

I wonder what makes these people decide that a boisterous 6 year old, a pre-pubescent 11 year old boy and a girl of 15 who is patently full of hormones need MEDICATING. They need parents who will give them some time, who will listen to them and interact with them ... not pills.

Rant over. I probably need to have my blood pressure checked. It feels as if it’s sky high just now.


  1. I agree with all that you say, I'm also pretty unimpressed with the medics who do the prescribing!

  2. You have said everything I was saying whilst watching. None of the parents in the film seemed to realise that L.T was perhaps suggesting that their children were entirely 'normal' and just exhibiting the behaviour that their personalities prescribe. Most sad was the teenage girl who, once off her meds., was about as ordinary a girl as you would find anywhere. These kids will never know who they really are if the drugs are continually taken. My son, at six, hated losing and got very cross when beaten at anything. He is still competitive by nature but at 13 has learned to cope with it and it is probably going to stand him in good stead for the future as he needs to do well in everything and has proved to himself endlessly, that he can. I think the ambition was taken out of the 6 year old on the programme. Surely, if he feels that losing is ok all the time he won't attempt to test himself and deal with disappointment...............and the huge sense of satisfaction that comes from achievement! All the parents on the programme are setting their children up for a lifetime of unhappiness and separateness. Life is about coping with stuff.

  3. I do agree that the parents and doctors shown seemed to medicate and overmedicate at the drop of a hat and at a very young age. However I do feel the need to comment on the use of stimulant meds for ADHD. It's not a magic bullet, it doesn't create zombified easily manipulated children. The frontal lobe in children who really have ADHD ( as opposed to just being a bit hyper after some blue sweets) is thought not to function as well as in neuro typical children. The frontal lobe is the bit that makes us aware that running naked through Tesco is not generally a great plan so if it is malfunctioning then impulse control, judgement and decision making is affected. Ritalin etc stimulates this. Like any drug of that type the correct dose needs adjusting until it is correct for the individual.

    My son takes ritalin every day, without it he was quite literally rolling around the floor at school, unable to stop talking, unable to concentrate etc etc. My poor drugged up child is now able to do all those things and actually remain in his seat for a whole lesson. he is on the gifted and talented register so no zombie child here.

    Saying that, those parents on the Louis Theroux show were barking, something which the dog was not.

  4. Would agree entirely with you, Mrs Dav. I have a friend whose son was ADHD and I'm aware of how he was without his Ritalin. It's all in the diagnosis ... and I really felt that the parents (aided by the doctors) featured in Theroux's programme were regarding - what seemed TO ME to be - their children's fairly normal behaviour as an inconvenience - and it is to that aspect that I objected so strongly.

  5. I usually love L.T. but was sad that he only chose parents of children currently on medication. I would have liked to see children whose parents didn't choose medicine, or parents who went off medication due to bad side effects. I also feel like we didn't learn very much about that 6 year old's parents and what they'd tried before. We just learn that she laughs when he throws a fit. Would have really liked to know the demographics of kids on medication. Pittsburgh is a pretty diverse city, but all the families we saw were white and middle class. We only met one father. It would have also been interesting to meet a pyschologist who work with older people on anti-psychotics and what he/she thinks about kids as young as 6 on these meds.

  6. I saw this programme, too.

    While it’s tempting to say “only in the America...,” I would be wary about making blanket judgements about the way Americans approach child mental health issues.

    Like one of your Anonymous bloggers, I was disappointed that the programme didn’t cover a very wide demographic, and apart from one short sequence where the girl was having a voluntary “drug holiday”, there was nothing to show what these children are like when they are not on medication, apart from parents’ testimony.

    I would also like to have heard from some mental health professionals who normally deal with adult patients.

    I wouldn’t rush to label these parents as inadequate – who are we to judge them? Do we live in their shoes?

    Thankfully, I haven’t had any direct experience of a child with mental health / behavioural problems, but I am a carer of an adult who has had recurring, chronic depression, and I know that if it weren’t for the medication that she has been taking, on and off over the past fifteen years, she would not be alive today. Living with someone with this illness can at times be terrifying; not just for me as an adult, but also for my child.

    I attend a support group for people who care for people – spouses, sons, daughters and parents – with a variety of mild to severe mental health illnesses. I know that mental illness can affect people of all ages – and yes, even children, shocking as it is. In this country at least, we do not appear to rush to medicate as a first resort, but it is frequently – and in my experience, sometimes necessarily - used as a last resort.

    We don’t know enough about mental illness, and we certainly aren’t in a position to say that it only affects people above a certain age. Sure, some – or perhaps all - of the children in that programme may have been on medication unnecessarily, but if that is true, I think that it’s the fault of the programme for not providing a wider view. “Only in America...”

    The psychoanalyst Karl Menninger wrote in The Human Mind (1930):

    "When a trout rising to a fly gets hooked on a line and finds himself unable to swim about freely, he begins a fight which results in struggles and splashes and sometimes an escape. Often, of course, the situation is too tough for him.

    "In the same way the human being struggles with his environment and with the hooks that catch him. Sometimes he masters his difficulties; sometimes they are too much for him. His struggles are all that the world sees and it usually misunderstands them. It is hard for a free fish to understand what is happening to a hooked one."

    That last sentence encapsulates for me the most difficult aspect of being the carer of a person with mental illness. At times it can be truly terrifying, but it is helped in no small part by medication.

  7. It certainly would have been a more balanced programme if we had been shown the difference in children where the families opt for non medication etc. In a hopefullynon smug way we did spot the Aspergers in Hugh before it was mentioned. < looks a wee bit smug>

  8. Completely agree but we did have a few kids at (special) school who were so aggressive that medication was the only answer

  9. I do need to agree that an hour long programme isn't really long enough to provide an adequate look at what appears to be a problem of over-medication in the US. There's certainly enough material for a whole series. Theroux chose to cover ... I thought very well ... one aspect of it. I have lived in America. The tenet is "Don't get sick". US citizens AREN'T as lucky as we are in the UK - they have to pay for their medicines with hefty medical insurance. They WANT something for their money which is probably wherein the problem of over-medication arises. Have you ever walked into an American pharmacy? Aisles and aisles AND AISLES of hemerrhoid preparations! What happens when there's a REAL problem? I believe it's all in the diagnosis but sometimes diagnosis isn't enough ... the clients of the doctor want something else, they want their medicines. And so they get them. I believe that the kids highlighted in the Theroux programme MAY have done well with CBT or other treatments or, indeed, no treatment at all - and, of course, I acknowledge wholeheartedly that there are some very real reasons for prescribing medication in troubled kids but there's a very real need to ensure - for the sake of the kids - that the diagnosis is correct and not just playing into the expectation of a society that often erroneously believes that answer to all ills can be found at the bottom of a medicine bottle.