The Drugging of Migrant Children: A Symptom of a Systemic Issue


The recent and ongoing debacle at the Mexican border has shed light on many of the travesties occurring behind the scenes with immigration, disrupted families, and the mistreatment of children who have been apprehended. Stories of abuses in detention and residential facilities, forced injections and drugging of children for behavioral control, and degrading treatment of the kids locked up in these facilities are heartbreaking and abhorrent.

The thing is, none of this is new. The abuse and trauma that is being perpetrated on these immigrant children is able to exist because we have not been paying attention for a long time.

Immigration policies in America have long had a racist bent and differed based on region of origin. Scapegoating immigrants for problems with national securityunemployment, and crimedid not begin with Trump.

Scapegoating mental illness is another smokescreen allowing us to ignore the problems in our society, in our families, and with our humanity. We, as a society, have become numb to the idea that drugging our children for the purpose of behavioral control is a normal and acceptable idea.

Isolation, demeaning and threatening behaviors on the part of staff, children not knowing if or when they will leave, forced injections and tranquilization — former patients of detention and residential facilities have been describing this inhumanity as the norm for decades. No, certainly, it does not equate with putting children in cramped cages. That it doesn’t escalate to overt abuse or illegal activity doesn’t excuse it. To the contrary, it is our acceptance of this as a norm that allows for abusive situations to arise so easily. Especially when the child is a minority.

Foster children are typically put on upwards of six potent psychotropic drugs daily and are diagnosed with the most severe disorders at a far higher rate than their same-age counterparts. Black persons are much more likely to be diagnosed with severe disorders and excessively drugged as well. In other words, those children who are at the greatest risk of oppression and have experienced abuse and family separation are also those most likely to be heavily drugged, diagnosed, and locked away. Immigrant children are only one of the many victim groups in this regard.

If we accept that children can and should be heavily drugged on a regular basis for purposes of control, then it should be no surprise when this happens on a massive scale with dehumanized children from another country.

These drugs are not medications specific to a known disease process — their routine use is for managing behavior, tranquilizing and subduing intense emotional expression or distress, and forced compliance with doctors’ wishes. Even when parental consent is obtained, parents are rarely provided information regarding alternative options, the dangerous, sometimes life-long consequences of these drugs, or the true reasons for their use.

Reports that children are being told that the only way out of these detention facilities is to comply and take the drugs is the norm in any psychiatric or juvenile detention facility. Children in such treatment facilities are, indeed, suffering, whether they are immigrants, in foster-care, victims of abuse or bullying, members of a violent community, or otherwise intensely distressed — and sometimes drugs can help ease the pain and make life more tolerable or worth living. This does not justify the use of multiple, toxic drugs forced for the purpose of behavioral management, and subduing or controlling people.

The inhumanity of what is happening to these innocent migrant children cannot be overstated. However, it would not be so easy for such practices to manifest if they were not already so widely accepted in these facilities as a form of medical treatment. Perhaps this can be an opportunity to do alter the status quo of how we treat children, in general, in our society, rather than focusing on managing crises once they erupt.


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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  1. Absolutley. Drugging these children is monstrous, and a very American thing to do.

    I read an article about a doctor who saw some of these despondent incarcerated children, and she referred them to psych wards. She knew they would be drugged there, but thought it better as she assumed they would also receive counseling. I’m not so sure. If forced psychiatric drugging is considered the lesser of two evils, we are in deep shit.

    These drugs can function as invisible cages, and have traumatic effects for years and years. They don’t necessarily just numb someone to pain, they can cut a child off from their understanding of themselves, their emotions, and their relationship to the word around them. And they can actually induce psychosis. How is a traumatized child to deal with all that? It’s nothing short of monstrous.

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  2. You’re right about all of this, Noel. Psychiatry’s cruelty and quackery are salient, once more, in its latest perpetration of crimes against humanity. This time, #FAKESCIENCE has targeted youth who are undocumented immigrants. In American society, we’ll valorize ”muh rights”, yet STILL tolerate a large number of abuses, any one of which could singlehandedly wreck this country. Our Overton window is pretty much wide open. To close any amount of it, people normally endure years of oppression, and, still, more years in a hard fight for justice. They must perpetually spearhead their own progress. By contrast, undocumented youth got their kidnappinngs outlawed in two short months. Without confronting psychiatry at all, these kids have cut it off at the knees. Parented kids are FAR less likely to get quacked than unparented kids – even if they’re “symptomatic”. I’m immensely proud of our nation’s undocumented immigrant youth, and I urge us all to LEARN from them. If they can secure de facto protection from psychiatry, there’s no reason why we can’t.

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  3. I am very glad you raised these parallels, Noel. I worked in foster care as an advocate for children for over 20 years, and I saw this happening first hand. The less power a person has in society, the easier it is to “diagnose” them and “treat” them whenever their behavior is inconvenient for the authorities. Of course, this leaves children of any color the most vulnerable group. Add other rationalizations for dehumanizing these kids, be it race, sexual orientation, country of origin, or immigration status, and the power differential soars to the point that these kids have no protection against randomly being drugged for the convenience or malice of the staff involved.

    It is good that this crisis is bringing some of these issues to a head, but they are, indeed, only the tip of the iceberg, the inevitable result of policies where we are allowed to define and “treat” kids for “diseases” that only manifest when they do and say things that the powerful adults don’t want to deal with.

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  4. It seems, in such a conversation, we must not forget the open institutions where drugging kids is encouraged: the education system. Here, it is complete behavioral control and if there is parental involvement, the parents are usually giving permission under duress and with all the wrong information. We’ve ignored this issue for decades and it simply get worse. I now know 6 year old who have been labeled since they were 2 and are now on a slew of pills daily. These kids have horrible home lives or have been abused (because bullying is abuse) in school situations for years. These are reactive and vulnerable kids who are drugged to make things easier for the adults around them.
    There should be no shock in what happens to immigrants when we treat our own cities so poorly.

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  5. Thank you. This has been happening for along time to American youth and now to infants and children.
    We may have different narratives but abuse is abuse.
    Again because we have been labeled and have legitimate fear it is much harder to go out and protest.
    At least it is for me.

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    • Dragon Slayer, I was sick and miserable coming off Effexor. As I lay down for my afternoon nap (I had pseudo CFIDS from withdrawal/long term druggings?) I would tell myself to keep doing it for my nephew Elijah. My brother has him on some drug. Xanax maybe. He’s still on it.

      But I hope I can show my family that if “Crazy Rachel” can go off her “sanity creating meds” (lol) and do better than before, Elijah, my mom, and my sister-in-law can go off their mind benders too.

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      • Don’t expect any great metanoias or ground shaking conversions even though you show them the proof by your own experience. I’ve come to believe that there is nothing rational about the way that people hand onto their drugs that they call “medicines”. I haven’t taken a psychiatric drug since the day I walked out of the “hospital” and people who are friends and on the drugs try to fight with me concerning my choice or they try to convince me that I should go back on them, “just in case”. It’s amazing to me that people refuse to see the light even with the proof staring them in the face.

        Congratulations on your getting off Effexor since I found it to be the very devil’s tic tacs. Horrible stuff that separated me from my feelings and emotions and caused me to do some very dangerous things.

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