The Winding Road and the Importance of Going Sideways

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As a therapist, I have noticed that one way we can take a preventative approach to dealing with emotional distress is to change the way we think of timelines; specifically, our expectations regarding high school and college-age individuals. I believe that one of the main reasons we see significant distress begin in the mid-twenties is because of the expectations that we put on our youth and young adults. We as a society pressure youth to achieve certain milestones “on time.” Teenagers are expected to finish high school by a certain age, to then attend college directly after high school, to then graduate from college in four years, and to then find a job (and hopefully a career) soon after. These are a lot of expectations on a young person who is also dealing with many additional challenging changes going on within themselves and their environment.

Why as a society do we place so much emphasis on these timelines? I think it is because every son or daughter in our society is expected to “get ahead” of everyone else. But what evidence is there that someone who follows these timelines will have more success in the end than someone who does not? My point is that, during the high school years, many teenagers are not ready to be in high school or move on to college. They may have the intellectual capacity but not the emotional capacity. Yet we prioritize intellectual development and students don’t receive emotional support, which may lead to substance abuse, severe emotional distress, etc. Many school guidance counselors are not trained to prioritize emotional well-being, they are trained to help the student get into the best college they can.

As a society, we must stop enforcing this notion that our child will “fall behind” if he or she takes time off to work on themselves and become truly ready to take the gigantic step into high school and toward college, whatever that may mean. There needs to be an emphasis on identifying students who are not ready to approach a traditional high school setting or begin college (a step that often involves leaving home for the first time, and the myriad of new responsibilities that come with it). If a person has emotional distress that has not been prioritized, it is often now self-medicated, through alcohol and substance abuse, as the expectations and pressures of life only become greater with each step “forward.” I have unfortunately seen young men and women turn to drugs that can be so toxic as to compound the emotional distress, sometimes causing lifelong consequences. Often the underlying issues began years earlier but were ignored in favor of the hyper-focus on academic accomplishment.

When we push our children forward simply because this is what we are taught to do, it can lead to disaster and ultimately wasted years of precious life. It is okay to go sideways in life! As adults we frequently go sideways, by changing to a new job, getting remarried, moving to a new location, etc, but during adolescence we don’t allow sideways to happen. When major emotional distress starts in the mid-twenties, such as with those who develop schizophrenia, bipolar, and other significant situations, individuals have not been given that extra time to heal and mature as they are pushed forward and expected to keep up with others who are not having these problems.

It is important to realize that higher education is not necessarily “higher” than anything else one might pursue. For example, in my counseling career, I work with many individuals who may not have been to college or graduated high school, who work successfully at a trade. They have families, they sometimes run businesses, and they are often very good at whatever they choose to do. Their families value success based not on the letters after one’s name but the skills that their children learn, no matter what that may mean.

Let’s recognize emotional distress for what it is! It is not a sin, it is not something to be embarrassed about. It is real and until we start looking at it straight in the face, as a society, we won’t recognize the importance of accommodating those who are going through it as we would with another disability. Emotional distress becomes scarier when it is ignored. It frequently will worsen and it doesn’t ever “go away” quietly.

It is at the high school level where the recognition needs to begin more carefully than it does now. During the adolescent years, the signs of emotional distress are sometimes hidden at home. A young person may display themselves as quiet, spend an excessive amount of time alone, begin using drugs or alcohol excessively, and engage in other risky behaviors. Many parents are shocked to find out years later, after their son or daughter has been hospitalized, that their child was engaging in these activities while living in their home. Sometimes a “quiet” high school student who manages to produce good academic grades passes through the home without forming attachments to his or her parents. Parents often accept this facade of normalcy without questioning the secrecy that may be masking the beginnings of major emotional distress. To illustrate this point — in the last 30 years, we have seen the increase of school shootings in this country, and in their aftermath, there is often a refrain that begins with the parents who respond, “I didn’t know anything was wrong, there weren’t any signs,” etc. The lack of communication was assumed to mean “normalcy.”

There are always signs, and I believe that these often occur in school and they are often overlooked or trivialized. Schools need to be hypervigilant when it comes to emotional distress. Counselors need to be awarded enough power to make serious decisions about students whom they see are using poor emotional coping skills. We hyper-focus on test scores yet we don’t focus on emotional testing for every student! We wait until problems arise, i.e. bullying, using drugs in school, excessive tardiness, to take any action. Why aren’t we preventive in our approach and engaging all young adults by testing their emotional health?

The winding path is very often the only path that a human being can follow. It has to become an acceptable path. We have to stop pushing young kids because WE want them to be somewhere without regard to what they are ready for. A person’s emotional life is more important than their academic life — much more important. Without emotional maturity and emotional health, the education will eventually fall apart because the frail person will need to express their suffering, either through drug addiction, alcoholism, schizophrenia, suicide, etc. We have to start understanding that these issues are societal ones. They happen because we are too focused on getting ahead and not focused on the whole picture, the capacity to love and feel cherished and live without overwhelming fear or anger. We must prioritize emotional health that may not fit the timeline that has become so important, in order to prevent the devastating effects on a young person whose need for a non-linear progression is ignored until their emotional needs turn into serious consequences.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

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17 COMMENTS

  1. I agree with the general sentiments expressed here, namely, that a one-size-fits-all inflexible approach to life leads to higher levels of distress and sometimes to emotional collapse in youth. I’m also glad you mentioned that not everyone goes to college, or needs to.

    That said, there are some distortions in the article that I need to point out. First off, a person who reacts badly to this tracking and enforced life schedule is not DISABLED or suffering from any disorder. They are reacting NORMALLY to an abnormal set of expectations, as the author’s original presentation suggests. It’s important to use that kind of language and to avoid “disability” language or we play into the medical model concept that everyone should “adjust” to whatever expectations society throws at them and that anyone who doesn’t is a failure or is “disabled” by definition.

    Second, you mention “self-medication” (I HATE that term – it implies again that they are deficient or “disordered”) without mentioning the huge and increasing numbers who are legally drugged by their doctors, and the damage done by such legal drugs is not discussed, but is a very important part of the equation. The use of drugs to delete the negative emotions mentioned in my first paragraph is simply one more way to keep our young people “on track” to do the proper things at the proper times and to avoid any discussion of whether such tracking is healthy or destructive.

    Third, and most important, giving counselors more power to “emotionally test” our youth is an EXTREMELY misguided concept! We have already seen that 1) there is no kind of “emotional test” that gives any kind of useful, objective data that would help modify the bizarre expectations of our modern world, and 2) people given this kind of power have been coopted by drug companies into “screening” youth for “disorders” and into routing them to psychiatrists so they can be identified with the proper labels and forced to take the proper drugs, all in the name of keeping them “on track” with the very social expectations you so properly criticize as you open your essay.

    The proper thing to do is not to scan for “disabilities,” but to alter the expectation that every kid goes to college and to re-focus our efforts on providing a wide range of options for youth, and to convey an understanding of and compassion for the very real challenges of moving from youth to adulthood in our screwed-up society. There is no simple “test” that can do this – it requires compassionate, caring, supportive human interaction, starting with overtly stating and recognizing that the world they are entering is, in fact, a bizarre one that provokes anxiety in almost all of us who live in it. Honesty goes a lot further than testing in helping kids cope, though of course, the BEST solution would be to work at revising our society in ways that don’t make its participants quite so “crazy” by expecting abnormal things and pretending they are normal.

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    • Hi Steve
      Thanks for your comments, you make some very good points about acting normally versus abnormally. I would point out that although your objection to the terms “self-medicating” is understood, recognizing the ill effects of how “street drugs” affect a person whose emotional needs are not being addressed is important. I agree that younger people are over-medicated in the psychiatric sense and I would not see that alternative as necessarily better. When you say you “hate” the term self-medicating (again because it hints at the medical model and I get that) it is really important to address the millions of lives that are derailed by addiction every day and that we need to find a better way to help teenagers in emotional distress than drug abuse of any kind.

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      • I think you’re missing the point. I am certainly very concerned about addiction to street drugs and think it reflects major failings in our society that so many people feel they have to drug away their feelings of anxiety, rage and hopelessness. My point is that using psychiatric drugs is not at all a different approach, and implies that there is something WRONG with the people who choose drugs as a means of coping with that distress. It also implies that “medication” will somehow be a BETTER means of dealing with their “disabilities.”

        I would also love to see your response to my other points. How we talk about these issues has a very significant impact on how people themselves think of their own distress and the kind of “solutions” proposed by our social system is willing to propose or support. Most importantly, it absolves our society for creating these conditions in the first place. For instance, “ADHD” is simply a critical description of a child who doesn’t fit into a standard classroom environment. By calling them “ADHD,” we prevent any research into the following questions: Are our classrooms failing to meet the needs of kids in general, or these kids in particular? What is causing this behavior for the child? Are there multiple causes? Are we expecting more from our kids than is reasonable for their age? Is it sometimes a function of variable development rates? (A third of ADHD diagnoses appear to evaporate if you wait a year before sending your kid to school!) Boring classrooms? Stress in the home environment? Poor parenting or poor classroom management? Poor diet or dietary deficiencies? Poor sleep? Calling it ADHD prevents ANY research into these potential difficulties!

        And the issue of testing stands on its own: how can you propose testing for a “disorder” that is defined with completely subjective and unmeasurable criteria? And without objective criteria, how would “overmedication” ever be determined? Are not the subjective criteria the reason why “overmedication” can’t be defined, leading to ever-increasing levels of drugging for the convenience of the authorities in charge?

        Thanks for your reply!

        — Steve

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  2. In agreement with the previous comments, I think that many of the recommendations made in this post go directly against the philosophy of MiA. We do not want to give adults the power to decide which children are “OK” and which are not. I’m not even sure it’s wise to increase the number of encounters with the mental health “helping” professions. Some populations, such as those with alexithymia and girls with autism, will be harmed by the approaches suggested in the OP.

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  3. Hi, I really like your ideas about accepting a winding, personally chosen and individually paced path toward adulthood. I agree that our culture creates expectations that contribute toward great pressure on young adults which can then lead to an emotional crisis. My belief is that unrestrained capitalism, which creates economic pressure and great inequity is behind this competitive, one size fits all system. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful perspective.

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  4. “Counselors need to be awarded enough power to make serious decisions about students whom they see are using poor emotional coping skills … Why aren’t we preventive in our approach and engaging all young adults by testing their emotional health?”

    Ugh. Unless I’m misunderstanding something, this is completely contrary to the message encapsulated in your title. And I don’t think you are likely to find any support on this site for interventions like this, particularly giving professionals “power to make serious decisions about students”. Do you have any idea what this site is all about?

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  5. “Why aren’t we preventive in our approach and engaging all young adults by testing their emotional health?” In part, maybe because these tests result in false positives for DSM disorders, leading to the forced psychiatric drugging of way too many children?

    “Counselors” already have too much power, and as we know power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Have you researched into the appalling crimes of the child stealing and child trafficking Child Protective Services “counsellors” yet? And the massive psychiatric drugging of children in their “care”?

    Are you unaware of the fact that over a million American children have already had the adverse effects of the ADHD drugs and antidepressants misdiagnosed, even according to the DSM, as “bipolar”? And do you not know that the DSM recommended “bipolar” drug cocktails, particularly combining the antidepressants and/or antipsychotics, can create symptoms that mirror both the negative and positive symptoms of “schizophrenia,” via what is actually neuroleptic induced deficit syndrome and anticholinergic toxidrome?

    In as much as I agree that not all children should be going to college, and our society has imposed absurd, but profitable for the universities, expectations onto the youth of our society. This is a societal problem, not a “brain disease” problem, thus more interventions by “counsellors,” their drugs, and their DSM stigmatizations is an inappropriate solution. Since the DSM “bible” is the belief system/theology that the “counsellors” believe in, despite it being a scientifically invalid belief system.

    I’d very much like to see all the “mental health professionals” get out of the business of drugging children en mass instead, especially the child abuse victims, who have a legitimate reason for experiencing emotional distress. Particularly since turning child abuse victims into the “mentally ill” with the psychiatric drugs is the primary actual function of today’s “mental health professionals,” according to your own medical literature, despite this being illegal behavior.

    Definitely, DSM deluded “counsellors” should not be “testing” the “emotional health” of all children, nor should they be given more power, since their belief system is scientifically invalid and the “mental health professionals” claim to be ignorant of how harmful the psychiatric drugs actually are. I agree with the others who’ve commented above, your blog would be better received elsewhere.

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    • I appreciate all the replies and statements. I will see say that I am not a DSM counselor if it matters. I have one on my shelf but it doesn’t go very far from there, we are not all the same. Anyway, what I am really interested in is the idea that
      my ideas would be “better received elsewhere” or do I “have any idea what this site is all about?” There is a
      difference between disagreement and condemnation and censure. Is a blog entry here “supposed to” sound a certain way! The idea that certain ideas may not “belong” is ultimately a limitation to the overall dialogue. I accept criticism (and welcome it) and some here have even clearly agreed with my main ideas but criticized specific points I made effectively. I wonder what others feel about this kind of “protective” stance on what ideas should be here and shouldn’t? (be brave!)

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      • No one expects you to pander to the audience, but you might have expected some strong reactions if you were familiar with your audience.

        News and views about the issues you discuss (interventions and screening for young people) have been extensively debated on this site. You too were given an opportunity to express your views and some of us did likewise. I don’t think it’s very complicated.

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  6. Adolescents and young adults are placed under immense pressures to conform to societal norms in their aspirations. So this of course is when those things seen as disorders emerge, like “mental illness” and “eating disorders”.

    It is also because the middle-class family exists for no other reason except to psychically main and scar children. The adults live in bad-faith, and they do this by having children and exploiting them.

    Never solve any of this in a psychotherapists office, as the therapist is themselves part of the problem. To deal with it, need to go into the court room, and into the political realm.

    Book Recommendation:
    https://www.amazon.com/Somebody-Elses-Children-Struggle-Americas/dp/0517599414/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1503432049&sr=1-5&keywords=john+hubner

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  7. Should Doctors and Therapists get screened as well (in the overall screening of society), or are they outside of the “Wheel of Life”.

    The previous original Mental Health doctor that “diagnosed” me was a “functioning” alcoholic who died an alcoholics death in middle age.

    I believe my previous long term GP in Ireland had had MH problems himself.

    My previous long term GP in London was asked to leave his partnership on account of an Episode of Psychosis (which he has described in medical magazine Pulse as “burn out”).

    My previous Consultant Psychiatrist in Ireland Dr P A Carney and his boss Professor T J Fahy were both slung out of medicine on account of their handling of Akathisia induced Suicidal/Homicidal Events. In my opinion a lot of people would still be alive if these two men had been screened.

    https://www.thefreelibrary.com/amp/HELL%20TORMENT%20OF%20PIER%20DIVE%20MUM%3B%20Last%20note%20of%20wife%20who%20drowned%20her%202

    https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.thefreelibrary.com/amp/HELL+TORMENT+OF+PIER+DIVE+MUM%253B+Last+note+of+wife+who+drowned+her+2…-a062758315

    https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.irishtimes.com/news/damages-for-man-whose-wife-drove-off-galway-pier-1.1131888%3fmode=amp#ampshare=https://www.irishtimes.com/news/damages-for-man-whose-wife-drove-off-galway-pier-1.1131888

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  8. schools don’t need to be hyper-vigilant about emotional well-being. they just need to be attentive, caring, supportive. don’t try to control; that’s a recipe for disaster. ye know, for some reason, case MANAGEMENT is a big thing in this country. like as if we’re all invalids who need to be “managed”.

    heebie geebies.

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    • Isn’t every school already telling us they ARE “attentive, caring, supportive…?” The point is not to control (and I never
      made reference to case management? It’s quite a tangential argument?) but to locate ways in which we can tune in to emotional distress.
      Words like caring are wonderful but the problem is we are NOT caring enough about emotional needs!! The truth is that the “care and support” we are currently offering is obviously not reaching those who are crying out for it. That’s because the “care” that schools offer students addresses emotional needs in terms of their relation to academic achievement, graduation rate, etc. We strive to make students similar because this is easier than recognizing their differences. Recognizing means more work.

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  9. I would more put it that “care” in the context of schools comes from an adult viewpoint and denies the legitimacy of kids’ actual, valid complaints about the injustice that occurs so frequently and for which they have no recourse whatsoever. The huge controversy over the TV series, “13 Reasons,” proves the point. It’s OK to “care” about kids as long as you don’t talk about what’s really going on, especially when the cause of their distress is the adults running the system they are forced to comply with. The problem is a chronic power imbalance that allows adults to act with impunity while punishing kids for objecting to their mistreatment.

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  10. I would agree completely. Kids are dis-empowered by the current system and thereby their voices are not heard. The agenda is set by the adults according to their perspective on what is important and what is not
    important or what is valid or not valid. Addressing issues such as suicide aren’t ones that are attractive to
    administrators, counselors, etc. How do we create a dialogue in the schools that involves students instead
    of dis-empowering them through our hierarchical system that does not reflect emotional needs of students? Of course, this problem is also reflected in the academic curriculum that is created and taught to kids. Who decides what is being “taught” in schools and what is deemed important or not important? Certainly not the kids!

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