The Future of Mental Health Interview Series: Marilyn Wedge on Reclaiming Childhood

Eric Maisel, PhD
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The future of mental health interview series continued this past week with interviews with Peter Kinderman, president-elect of the British Psychological Society, on the efforts of the British Psychological Society, Jed Diamond on individual psychotherapy, Ruth Folit on healing through journaling, Shawn Rubin on gender diversity issues, and Marilyn Wedge on reclaiming childhood.

To see the complete roster of 100 interview guests, please visit here:

Below is my interview with Marilyn Wedge on reclaiming childhood.

EM: You’ve written a book called A Disease Called Childhood. Can you tell us what you intended with that book?

MW: As a child therapist since 1987, I have seen an alarming increase in children being diagnosed with mental disorders and prescribed psychiatric drugs. For more than 25 years, I have helped children by using safe and effective family and school interventions. I have successfully treated all kinds of childhood problems–attention and focusing issues, school misbehavior, distractibility, anxiety, oppositional behavior and sadness–without ever referring them for psychiatric medication.

In 1987, when I started my practice, less than 3 percent of American children were diagnosed with what was then called ADD. By 2016, the number increased by 300 percent. Today, 12 percent of our children are diagnosed with what is now called ADHD. Alarmed by this explosion in diagnosis, I decided to write A Disease called Childhood with three purposes in mind: (1) to understand the causes of this exploding epidemic of ADHD diagnoses; (2) to discover the effects of culture and society on how children’s problems are understood and treated; (3) to offer parents practical strategies to help their children without psychiatric drugs.

When I researched ADHD in other advanced countries, I found that the rates of diagnosis have remained relatively low. In France and Finland, for example, the number is 1 percent or less. Unlike the United States, the typical treatment for childhood troubles in these countries is not medication, but family therapy and interventions at the child’s school. Diagnosing a child takes at least eight sessions of evaluating the child and his family, not going through a twenty-minute checklist of symptoms.

If ADHD were a true biological disorder of the brain, why was the rate of diagnosis so much higher in America than it was abroad? Or was it a matter of perception—of how children and childhood are viewed in various cultures? In my research I found that differing approaches to psychiatry, parenting, child diet, electronic screen exposure and education accounted for the difference in rates of ADHD across the globe.

Informed by the approaches of other cultures to childhood challenges, my book offers parents, teachers, doctors, and therapists a new and more compassionate paradigm for child mental health–and a better, happier, and less medicated future for American children.

EM: You have been on a “reclaiming childhood tour.” Can you tell us a little bit about that and its intentions?

MW: The Reclaiming Childhood tour is a series of one day seminars across the country led by experts in a variety of fields—school counseling, psychology, medical journalism, research, and family therapy. We intend to spark a much-needed discussion regarding children’s mental health and well-being.

Our society’s perception of childhood has undergone a dramatic change in the last four decades. Behaviors that were previously considered a part of normal childhood, a child’s normal reaction to stress in their social environment, or normal developmental phases have been redefined as “mental disorders” that require treatment with psychiatric drugs. Children are being medicated with anti-depressants and anti-psychotics that were not FDA-approved for children and which have dangerous side effects. Even stimulant drugs typically prescribed for ADHD are proving to have dangerous side effects like psychotic episodes.

Based on our many years of research and experience, the speakers of Reclaiming Childhood offer a new paradigm of child mental health informed by the latest research in neuroscience as well as many years of clinical experience with children. We offer safe, effective solutions for childhood difficulties–family therapy, parenting classes, school interventions, dietary interventions, and a host of others. As we speak around the country to parents, educators, and therapists, we expect to ignite a tipping point in the way our society perceives the difficulties and challenges of childhood and how we can best help children at home and at school.

EM: You’re a family therapist. Can you tell us a little bit about family therapy, when it’s recommended, and why it might prove more beneficial than individual therapy in certain circumstances?

MW: We all live in the context of complex social systems like family, culture and society. All of these systems influence our behavior and emotions. However, thinking in terms of systems is difficult because systems are non-linear. In other words, a cause in one part of the system may have an effect in another area that does not resemble the cause.

For example, parents have been quarreling and their four-year-old son holds a knife to his throat and threatens to kill himself. The connection between the two events is not obvious. The family therapist seeks out the situation that is affecting the child and causing him to have problems. Instead of asking ourselves “What is wrong with this child?” we ask, “What are the stressors in the child’s world to which he is reacting?”

This is not the common sense worldview. In fact, it is counter-intuitive because contemporary thinking is based on a biological frame of internal causes. This is why labeling individuals with mental disorders does not make sense from a family therapy point of view because the actual problem lies in interpersonal relationships.

Even the therapist is part of the system. If a therapist focuses only on “symptoms of a disorder,” as the DSM directs, she is going to find them. Then the only solution is to medicate the symptoms, which only hides the true cause of the problem. In contrast, the family therapist examines the child’s social context, revealing the stressors to which the child is reacting.

Family therapy is particularly effective for children’s problems since the family is dominant in the child’s social environment.

EM: What are your thoughts about the current, dominant paradigm of “diagnosing and treating mental disorders”?

MW: With regard to children, today’s dominant paradigm of psychiatry is a cultural catastrophe and a national disgrace. This becomes apparent if we contrast the American approach with the approach of doctors in other advanced countries. The new American biological paradigm was born with the American Psychiatric Association’s publication of the DSM-III in 1980. When French child psychiatrists read the DSM-III they were so shocked that they wrote their own manual for understanding childhood emotional problems. Why? Because the DSM-III confused children’s emotional or developmental problems with actual medical conditions.

Today, prominent psychiatrists and even the lead author of the DSM-IV are back-pedaling, claiming that the diagnoses were only meant to be “social constructions” not actual mental disorders. However, the damage has been done and generations of children feel that they cannot do well in school or in life without taking a psychiatric drug.

EM: If you had a loved one in emotional or mental distress, what would you suggest that he or she do or try?

MW: I would encourage a loved one to get help in finding the underlying cause of their distress. So often when people tell their doctor or a psychiatrist that they are upset or feeling sad, they are offered an antidepressant as a Band Aid to mask their symptoms. There is little or no discussion of what might be causing their emotional pain. Most human problems are relationship problems, although of course financial worries, illness, and work stress can cause pain as well. I would help a loved one to find a caring and competent therapist, preferably one who successfully practices “brief therapy,” seeking solutions to underlying problems.

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Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D. is a family therapist with 27 years of experience. She is the author of three books, most recently A Disease called Childhood: Why ADHD became an American Epidemic available in paperback March, 2016. Dr. Wedge holds a doctorate from the University of Chicago and was a post-doctoral fellow at the Hastings Center for Bioethics.

Links:

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To learn more about and/or to purchase The Future of Mental Health visit here.

To see the complete roster of 100 interview guests, please visit here.

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