June 1, 2008

Something we can all agree on

In this highly politicized season (election 2008), is there something we can all agree upon? I think so. From the political left or right, we should be able to come together around the idea that it’s bad to use psychiatric drugs to control children. There are better ways to intervene in the lives of children than by giving them psychiatric diagnoses and drugs.

Let me go back to the early 1970s when I first began doing reform work in the form of an international campaign to stop the resurgence of lobotomy and psychosurgery. Two political groups came to my support: the Black Caucus of the U.S. Congress including Democrats Ron Dellums from California and Louis Stokes from Ohio, and several conservative Republican senators, including J. Glenn Beall, Jr. from Maryland, Frank Buckley from New York and Steve Symms from Idaho.

The Black Caucus was outraged at my discovery of dozens of mutilating operations on black children as young as age 5 in a public institution in Mississippi. The “experiments” were being conducted by neurosurgeon O. J. Andy, department director at the University of Mississippi medical center. I had also documented that several other neurosurgeons from Harvard including William Sweet and Vernon Mark, and their psychiatric henchman Frank Ervin, were literally advocating psychosurgery for the leaders of “ghetto riots.” The threesome had federal government funding for their experiments and actually inspired a Life magazine cover story about preventing violence through experimental psychosurgery in a nation terrified by the burning of the inner cities. As bizarre as all this now sounds in retrospect, it’s thoroughly documented in my book, The War Against Children of Color (1998) written with my wife Ginger.

Leaders of the Black Caucus saw not only the racist aspect of the resurgence of psychosurgery, but also the dangers of more widespread social control. While psychosurgery was too complicated and expensive to be used on millions of people, the idea of targeting leaders of the black community was not farfetched.

The conservatives I dealt with, not only in the Senate but also in the White House, offered different reasons for supporting my anti-psychosurgery campaign. I will never forget sitting down in front of Senator J. Glenn Beall with an allotted ten minutes to get my point across. I described to him how psychosurgery devastated free will, made people apathetic, and impaired the expression of their spirituality. “That’s immoral,” he replied, and promised to do anything he could to help me. He took this stand despite the fact that some of his most powerful constituents in Maryland at the National Institutes of Health were supporting psychosurgery.

In a nutshell, the liberal Black Caucus responded to the racist threat to African-American children and to the wider implications of social control, while the conservatives responded to the threat to the integrity of the individual moral being.

The same issues arise in regard to the massive drugging of millions of American children. The threat of social control is now an actuality. In almost every classroom in the nation, at least a few children are being subdued by psychiatric drugs to make it easier to manage their behavior. In many public schools, 10%-15% or more of children are being drugged with stimulants, mood stabilizers, antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs. Meanwhile, in special education, foster care and public institutions, nearly all the children will be drugged, often with multiple chemical agents at once.

We are literally subduing our children instead of reforming our schools and family life. And since every child knows that many children are being drugged, every child, for better or worse, knows that certain kinds of behavior will lead to being medicated. As I noted in my earlier column, many have eagerly adopted the practice for themselves, taking stimulants that they obtain without prescriptions.

Just as the social control issues cannot be exaggerated, the threat to the integrity of each child’s moral capacity cannot be exaggerated. Not only do the medications suppress spontaneity and volition, the psychiatric approach teaches children that they cannot, without medication, learn to manage their own behavior. In effect, the children are taught that they cannot exercise and develop self-determination, autonomy or free will.

At the same time, both parents and teachers are being told that they do not have the ability, training or skills to help many of the children in their care without first drugging them. Parents and teachers alike are being taught by psychiatry that they lack the capacity to take responsibility for teaching the children in their care how to improve their conduct. Everyone’s sense of responsibility falls beneath this steamroller of psychiatric diagnoses and drugs. Instead of reaching out more effectively to individual children and instead of reforming education in general, we drug a significant portion of the students.

Whether viewed through the lens of social control or through the lens of personal responsibility, psychiatrically drugging children is a bad idea. Whether the goal is to stop social control, to reform education, or to rescue individual children from their drug-induced moral doldrums, in a true spirit of a political coming together, let us all agree to do our part to stop the drugging of America’s children.