What Did Kids Do Before Therapy?

4004791663_0d10fc20ae_mWhat did kid’s do about their problems back in the day? Only a few generations ago, there was no booming childhood psychiatry industry. Child therapists didn’t have offices in every neighborhood, and medications to treat mental health issues were unheard of.

How did those kids cope?

It’s an obvious question, in a world cluttered with headlines about childhood problems ranging from ADHD to depression to the newly proposed “temper disregulation with dysphoria”, which appears to be a fancy name for pathological temper tantrums.

In this week’s New York Times, therapist and writer Erik Kolbell attempts an answer.

Kolbell recounts the troubles he experienced as a child growing up with ADHD, but without a diagnoses, saying:

In short, I was an A.D.H.D. kid, lacking only a diagnosis. And now that I know that the condition was a result of my body’s inherent inability to manage the flow of neurotransmitting chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, all of my parents’ heated entreaties to “buckle down” and “pay attention to what’s in front of you” were about as useful as telling a nearsighted child to see clearly without glasses.

He recalls other classmates who suffered greater challenges than difficulty paying attention in school: kids who were abused, or suicidal, or who abused drugs. Kids who needed help, and never got it, because there was no one to give it.

The flip side of that, of course, is that a very great many kids in America today get help they maybe don’t need. We have two-year-olds taking powerful anti-psychotic drugs to control their purported bipolar disorder, and 5 million kids have been diagnosed with ADHD.

There’s a huge mental health industry that exists today to support these kids and their families. How much of that is needed mental health care and how much of it is hype?

As a parent, I know how hard it is to watch a child struggling, especially if those struggles take the shape of misbehavior. It’s incredibly tempting to reach out and insist that there must be Something that Someone can do to make it better. A pill, an exercise routine, a special diet. Something outside the strained, exhausted, fragile family that can come in and make things better.

I also have my own childhood memories to draw on. Unlike Mr. Kolbell, I am young enough to have grown up with an ADHD diagnoses. It was first given to me when I was 4, before I even started school. We moved a lot, and I’ve lost count of how many diagnostic tests I filled out, how many different therapists have diagnosed me with the same disorder and tried to treat it.

Would I have been OK just toughing it out without all the tedious, embarrassing therapies and medications? I doubt it. Even on Ritalin, I was so hyperactive my 1st grade teacher put a refrigerator box over my desk to keep me sitting in it.

Even as an adult, I can’t function at full steam without medication. Having access to that makes my life a whole lot better. In an earlier generation, I suspect I’d be a less effective, more frustrated version of myself.

What do you think? Were kids better off before the mental health industry discovered them as lucrative clients? Or are today’s kids being served – and in some cases saved – by their therapists and pills?

Photo: Pink Sherbert Photography

More by Sierra Black:

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Article Posted 6 years Ago
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