Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Judith Warner, We've Got Issues

Author: Judith Warner
Title: We've Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication
Publisher: Riverhead
Format: Kindle book

I first became aware of Judith Warner through reading her posts at the New York Times's online Opinionator blog. I am sad to see she has stopped contributing to the blog. Warner wrote on politics and society and gender and class, but her focus was often on parenting and motherhood. I am not a mother, so I did not read her posts regularly, but when I come upon them, I usually found them witty and pithy, well worth reading. In general, I like the way she thinks. She is not afraid to go out on a limb, or to be wrong, and sometimes, she changes her position on issues as years go by. I really appreciate that kind of intellectual flexibility and courage.

Warner's recent book, We've Got Issues, demonstrates perfectly her ability to revisit past positions. (Part of this tendency may be because a lot of the brainstorming/initial writing for the book was online, for the NYT blog; as a result, Warner received lots of feedback/comments and was far less isolated from the effects her arguments had on readers.)

In chapter 1, she tells us that the book she initially intended to write was conceived of as "UNTITLED on Affluent Parents and Neurotic Kids."

It was supposed to explore "fashionable children's diagnoses"--like Asperger's disorder, dyslexia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, anxiety disorders, and bipolar disorder. . . . Its central argument was going to be that children were, by and large, being overdiagnosed and overmedicated.

What Warner found as she researched and read further was that in general, parents of children with mental disorders would vastly prefer not to medicate their children, or to have them diagnosed. In the end, they have done so only because they have had to; because their children were suffering (and the whole family was suffering) and the parents were at wit's end. In these cases, medical/psychiatric intervention turned out to be the only thing that would work. Ultimately, these were last-resort measures, for the most part, not frivolous or lazy decisions.

Therefore, instead of being critical of parents (and I have to admit, it is very, very easy to be disgusted with some of the more popular excesses that get bandied about) and claiming that the sickness of our culture creates mentally ill people (instead of these things being something we do not control), Warner ultimately comes from the issue with a sense of compassion for the struggles of the parents and children who suffer mental disorders. She notes how our society tends to ignore or stigmatize mental illness as a whole, and in children in particular, and how these parents and kids often get overlooked because of this stigma or indifference.

The idea of showing concern instead of scorn for these kids/parents strikes me as exactly the right direction to take. If we blame the kids who suffer these disorders, we only hurt them further; if we blame their parents, call them "bad parents" instead of "people whose kids need help," then we paralyze them with shame and make it that much harder for them to get help for their familites.

Warner points out repeatedly that while our society talks incessantly about how many children are overmedicated and overdiagnosed, when she spoke with the actual doctors, parents, and teachers who worked with these kids, she rarely found anyone who felt the medications/therapy were being dispensed frivolously. Whether or not one agrees with this, I definitely support Warner's belief that kids with mental disorders (and their parents) deserve compassion, attention, and care, not scorn.

The book feels less tightly organized than I'd like; I feel that the chapters wander a bit and they kind of melded together in terms of purpose and topic. However, I like Warner's narrative persona and I appreciate very much the amount of research she did for the book.

The problem with many of these issues is that we simply do not yet have longterm information on the effects of psychotropic drugs, or enough information on what causes mental disorders. Warner points out that the field of child psychiatry is very small--it is extremely difficult even to find doctors who want to study it. Given these difficulties, it's hard to find the right path to take in regard to these issues, but again, I absolutely support Warner in her sense that it is good to feel compassion for these children/families.

Finally, as per usual with Kindle books, the formatting is a nightmare. The design is ruined; the spacing is not attended to; there are typos introduced into the text. This was a more expensive e-book--one of the ones at $14.00, and I have to say it burns a bit to purchase an e-book so ridden with formatting errors. It cannot be that hard to write macros to clean files before they are put into e-book format, can it? Someone in publishing must be able to do it!

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