Louis Theroux is without doubt a very personable soul. He comes across as likeable and curious – the opposite of aggressive, but not in a passive way, more of a reconciler perhaps. So by tackling the issue of whether children in the United States are over-dependent on medication for psychiatric ‘disorders’, he took himself to a clinic in Pittsburgh and met with psychiatrists, counsellors, children and their families to get to the heart of the issues at hand.
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There was, without doubt, a bias towards a criticism of the decisions to medicate children as young as six who were diagnosed with bipolar disorder, ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. We looked into the lives of three children in particular, whose homes Louis visited, and in one case, stayed as a guest, to get into what it was like to be a child with a label.
I had a feeling that Louis concluded with more sympathy for the families than he might have started with – but with a heavy heart – or maybe that’s how I felt after the programme. He asked some very intelligent questions to the families and the doctors.
What was the difference between personality and symptoms? How much of the child is the illness? When the medication starts and the labelling starts, how difficult would it then be to stop?
I was struck by the child whose mother was asked about the difference when she takes her medication and when she doesn’t and she said, of her 15 year old daughter – that when she takes her medication, she is ‘like my friend’ and when she doesn’t, she is obstinate and disagreeable. A part of me remembers myself at 15. I don’t think I would have been a parent’s ‘best friend’ at that stage.
Another angle that struck me was the child with ADHD and Aspergers’ who had begun his journey through the psychiatric system when he had been expressing ‘suicidal ideations’. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to have a child with these difficulties. How frightening it is. But again, I felt sad that he seemed to have become defined by his diagnoses. It made him now feel special.
I think it was a well-made film and I’d recommend watching it. It is a thoughtful insight into some of the difficulties that exist but I wonder about an over-dependence on medication and not just for children. One family explained that all family members (except their daughter and including their dog) were on some kind of medication.
The film did not tie up with any conclusions. It filmed the interviews, talked to some of the parties involved and left us with an open question – but enough questions were left at the end to suspect that nothing is as straightforward as we would like it. The issue of drugs companies was never really raised, for example.
I am not against ‘medication’ for the record. I have seen how much positive difference a prescription can make to someone’s quality of life and have no doubt that it is entirely the right option for some people and some children as well. I suppose the concern comes in the increased propensity to medicate because it may be easier and cheaper than more costly psychological therapies. And the damage within families may be too high a price to pay for the time it might take to treat by other means.
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- Louis Theroux looks at America’s prescription culture (news.bbc.co.uk)
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- Louis Theroux on America’s Medicated Kids | Interview (guardian.co.uk)