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The Medicalizing Of Education

Nov 4, 2007
I don't think that there is anyone in society today that doesn't take medication for something - high blood pressure, diabetes, prostate problems, thyroid dysfunction, ulcers, or depression just to name a few. For sure, medication is something that is needed by many just to stay alive.

Children have always needed medication for childhood illnesses and some childhood diseases. It is only within the last 20 years that we have seen school aged children being medicated with psychotropic drugs, sometimes even as early as preschool. About 15 years ago, when I was a vice-principal of a school for conduct disordered kids, I was on the phone with a doctor who was treating one of my students. I mentioned to the doctor that the student was hyperactive. He informed me that I was using the wrong terminology, that she wasn't hyperactive, but that she had ADHD. During our discussion, the doctor further explained that this student's ADHD was the reason why she had such poor impulse control, and that she needed medication to help control her. In my opinion, poor parenting and the lack of good old fashion discipline have played a huge part in the very popular current trend in society and especially in education where everyone including school psychologists, social workers, guidance counselors, administrators, and teachers take the easy way out and looks for a quick fix to deal with students who in days gone by would have been considered disrespectful and irresponsible, not mentally ill.

Society today has raised its tolerance for deviance. This same attitude has found its way into education and has resulted in lower expectations for student achievement and behavior. Years ago if one person burned the American flag it was an illegal act and the guilty person or group was held accountable with the appropriate societal consequences imposed. But, what happens if five thousand people burn the flag and the jails aren't big enough to hold them? You either build bigger prisons, or make it legal to burn the flag.

When I was a student in school there were students who behaved in a disrespectful and irresponsible manner. These students were few and far between, and were dealt with accordingly. What happens when the number of students who are disrespectful, irresponsible, violent, bullying, and are involved in illegal acts starts to rise? A condition such as ADHD becomes the excuse for the deviant behavior.

"ADHD was determined to be a mental illness by vote of the American Psychiatric Association members at their annual meeting in 1987, and the new definition was then added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Children (and increasing adults)who exhibit behaviors such as inattention, distractibility, trouble in following directions, a tendency to lose things, and difficulty awaiting their turn to speak or participate in activities are now seen as victims of ADHD." (The Politics of Deviance, 2002)

In the past these behaviors were seen as achievement-ability discrepancies, or just unruly behavior. Now, parents and educators both seem to be relieved that the problems that exist with behaviors such as disrespect, irresponsibility in the home and in school today can now be looked at as a type of mental illness that requires a treatment plan, rather than individual accountability and self control.

The medical industry has developed drugs that have improved the quality of life for millions of people. In reality if some of these drugs didn't exists some people would not be alive today. I am a perfect example. I take high blood pressure medication to normalize blood pressure that what would otherwise be so high I would have had a stroke. Taking this medication doesn't make me any less responsible for my own health. I still have to walk, watch my diet, and not smoke. Because medication is so widely used in education, people often cite the decision of some parents not to medicate their children as the reason why a kid's behavior is out of control. In my own experience I have often called parents to discuss their child's unacceptable behavior and have been told that the child hadn't taken his medication. The idea that the failure to take medication can be used as an excuse for deviance removes any form of responsibility on the individual for the behavior. I know that I am responsible for my own health with or without medication. Students are responsible for their own behavior and cannot use medication or the lack of it to get off the hook when confronted with the consequences of their lack of self -control.

Parents and educators today see mental illness as an out for them. In fact many parents actually request the diagnosis of mental illness for their children. In others words, the parent is saying, it's not me as a parent, but rather biologically there is something wrong with my kid. There is no stigma attached to the label mental illness. Many parents as well as educators are convinced that their children who are diagnosed with some sort of mental illness are actually smarter, brighter, and more creative than kids who do behave, do pay attention in class, and who are responsible for their actions. It almost becomes comforting for parents and educators to believe that it is not their parenting or behavior management techniques that may have caused the child's problem. They are convinced that the inappropriate or even deviant behavior that they have been observing and tolerating is a result of faulty wiring in the child's head which led him to throw tantrums, curse his teacher or parents out, bully other kids, and engage in violent behavior.

Medicalizing education sends the wrong message to parents, teachers and administrators that a students' poor academic performance or their lack of self control can be clinically diagnosed, and
eliminated through the use of psychotropic medication.

A model focusing on respect, responsibility, and emotional maturity is the only response to the medication model that excuses behaviors and avoids relevant consequences that will provide permanent help not temporary relief.
About the Author
Jim Burns is one of America's most inspirational educational speakers. His humorous and insightful presentations touch and influence his audiences in an unforgettable way. Best known for his presentations on Bullying, Motivating Disaffected Students, Diffusing Power Struggles, Character Education. For more about Jim Burns http://behavioral-management.com/
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