Too many tablets to swallow

13th August 2004 at 01:00
The number of anti-depressant prescriptions given to children is reaching worrying proportions, writes Mark Edwards

The recent news that the UK's largest pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmith-Kline, is under investigation for fraud in America over research into the effect of anti-depressants on young people raises some serious questions for the education profession in this country.

As an ex-headteacher now working in the field of mental health, I watch with alarm at the ever burgeoning list of "disorders" that our young people are diagnosed as suffering from.

I am also concerned that many teachers, especially special needs co-ordinators, are sent on courses where they are told that ADHD (attention-deficithyperactivity disorder), to give one example, is a "biologically inherited condition" as if it is an incontrovertible fact. It is nothing of the kind.

The author and psychiatrist RD Laing said in the late 1980s, shortly before his death, that he was concerned at the growing hegemony of the psychiatric profession.

He was describing a process whereby the widening of the parameters of deviant behaviour was reaching a stage where anyone who didn't see, think or do things in exactly the "right" way would be classed as having a mental health problem and treated as such. In our current quick-fix society, this often means medication - usually Ritalin in the case of ADHD, but there is now a worrying increase in the prescribing of anti-depressants to the young and, more recently, of the anti-psychosis drug Risperidone.

The pharmaceutical industry is very big business and it is looking for new markets. Children appear to be exhibiting difficult behaviours with increasing frequency. Some parents or teachers may look towards an emotional basis for these difficulties, but in the UK there exists a strong antipathy toward emotional literacy and the "talking cures".

No one with a child who exhibits slightly odd behaviour wants to have their family circumstances placed under the spotlight. But there is an African saying, "It takes a whole village to raise a child", and parents would do well to remember this. Rather than focusing exclusively on the family, we should be looking at the sort of society we are bringing children into and the kinds of pressures they are daily subjected to.

The one-size-fits-all approach dominates education and despite the attempts of teachers to meet different learning styles and create an "inclusive" system, the numbers of special educational needs diagnoses continue to rise, as do the number of pupil-referral units.

Beyond this, the media seem to be obsessed with celebrity culture as a definition of success in life. Is it any wonder that so many children feel at odds with the world? Labelling them as having a problem surely adds insult to injury and trying to find "cures" for them may be just a handy way for us to avoid taking responsibility for what is actually a very unhealthy social culture.

As educators, we should not be colluding in this "pill for every ill" process. I recently posted these views on the SEN forum of the TES website.

I received no response from the many special needs teachers who visit this forum; yet, the same posting on the TES opinion forum elicited a strong and mostly favourable response from ordinary teachers.

This may not be a scientifically valid piece of research, but my interpretation of this, in conjunction with reading other postings on the SEN forum, is that the SEN lobby is fast becoming a willing partner in the pathologising of our children. It may be with the best of intentions, but in the long term it could be doing untold damage.

Children who have been labelled ADHD or as having Oppositional Defiance Disorder or Conduct Disorder have sometimes felt relieved at this "explanation" for their behaviour. Others have used it to justify it: "I can't help it - I'm ADHD". But, either way, this is disempowering; it suggests that they can't do much about their behaviour.

The evidence for a biological basis to these disorders is inconclusive; all we have is a set of behaviours that occur with a certain regularity. There is no proof that schizophrenia exists, yet it has become culturally accepted as a recognised condition and the same is rapidly becoming true of less problematic disorders.

The term "disorder" is damaging in that it reinforces the notion that there is something wrong with the child, rather than something different.

Children are now expected to perform in certain ways and at certain stages according to criteria decided for them by the Government; if they deviate from this, parents are advised to immediately call in the psychologists for a quick diagnosis of the problem. Your child is shy? Asperger's Syndrome.

Aggressive to others? Conduct Disorder.

What is more alarming is that brain-scan technology is advancing and we may yet see pre-birth diagnoses of brain disorders - a brave new world that only a writer of Aldous Huxley's calibre could have imagined. In the meantime I suppose we just keep taking the tablets.

Mark Edwards is a former headteacher. He is now a writer and counsellor, working primarily with vulnerable young people

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