Over the past two decades, there has been a meteoric rise in the number of children – now estimated to be 1 in 6 – diagnosed and treated for a range of psychological disturbances including ADHD, autism, mood disorders, and learning disabilities. Explanations in the popular media tend to polarize around two viewpoints:
1) Childhood mental illnesses are caused by genetically influenced chemical imbalances in the brain. Magic bullet cures will come in the form of drugs that correct these imbalances in much the same way that insulin cures diabetes. Greater awareness and improved diagnostics have lead to the spike in incidence rates.
2) We need to let kids be kids. Children by definition are inattentive and moody, and we have to let them run and play, and stop pathologizing normal behaviors in order to drug them into silence for the convenience of quiet classrooms and orderly households.
The truth is, neither of these perspectives tell the whole story. Without question, some children are diagnosed unnecessarily because their behavior is inconvenient to the adult world. In All Work and No Play and Childhood Lost, I described pathogenic trends in American culture that undermine children’s psychological health, such as developmentally insensitive school systems, the disappearance of creative play in early childhood, and screen technologies that immerse them in violent and sexualized worlds. When you place children in environments that undermine their development, inevitably, some will “not fit in”, and they may find themselves labeled with ADHD, a learning disability, or a mood disorder.