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Feel the pain

Growing up is about learning how to deal with life, not pathologising it

17 September 2011

12:00 AM

17 September 2011

12:00 AM

There’s a passage in Willy Russell’s wonderful novel, The Wrong Boy, which could almost be funny — except, wisely, Russell doesn’t play it for laughs. The book chronicles a childhood blighted by adult misunderstanding, and describes an instance of it in which zealous ‘educationalists’ observe that the Boy’s artwork is harshly, relentlessly black: echo and evidence, all agree, of a darkness in the child’s soul.

The truth, had the evangelical minds been open to it, was both simpler and easier to mend. The Boy was a shrimp of a kid, easily elbowed aside. So when the school crayons were put out, the coloured ones were promptly snaffled, leaving him with the last in the box: the black pencil. If the staff had looked, they would have seen — but they would not look, not they, determined to seek only what they chose to find.

I thought of the Boy again last week, when a three-year study of Europe’s mental health concluded with a recommendation that all children should be professionally screened for ‘anxiety disorders’, the better to direct them, perhaps pre-emptively, towards ‘effective treatment’; after all, says the report’s lead author, Professor Hans Ulrich Witten, we routinely do dental check-ups — so, ‘Why not?’

Professor, it is truly hard to know where to begin, especially in the face of so casual a conflation; as if the identification of potential psychosis is no more open to conflicting interpretation than that of a cavity in a milk tooth. There is, in fact, only one similarity between them: just as a dentist is only paid to fill a tooth once he has sight of a hole, so it is in the greater financial interest, of therapists various, to note only the black drawing and not the absence of coloured crayons.

Beyond that, the difference is chasmic. There is every good cause to believe that a niggling tooth needs fixing, the pain being a generally reliable indication of pathology. There is not — in spite of the persuasion of altogether too many in Witten’s trade — good cause to believe that emotional pain is necessarily ‘fixable’ or, no matter how glib the sell, any indication of pathology whatsoever.

This isn’t, obviously, to deny the existence of mental disorder; for some, it exists, for many it is painful, for a few it is fatal. None the less, to go rootling around in every unhappy, half-formed head, looking for what hurts then seductively promising ‘treatment’ and ‘cure’ is, as evidenced by the vocabulary itself, to risk medicalising perfectly normal human emotion. Already we have the social tedium of adults who pepper conversation with the wisdom of their therapist or counsellor and the merits of this happy pill or that; fine, I suppose, if they enjoy their self-indulgence and I don’t have to listen. But it is another thing altogether to inflict this nonsense, as a matter of routine, upon children who would be far better served by being told that, yeah, sometimes, life sucks.

Exams loom that feel like life or death? There’s nothing medical about the sick you feel; it’s the reasonable anxiety that you will come to expect when pressure is high. Oh, and by the way: that cool kid, the one with the couldn’t-care-less scowl in the schoolyard? He didn’t sleep last night, either.

When the family dog dies, the one you have known all your life, you’re not supposed to shrug it off; we’d be worried if you did. The rational, sane and, yes, healthy response to your loss is that ache in your stomach which some day you will more readily identify as grief. Horrid it is; mad it is not.

Should a best friend dismiss you for another, and the world switch to monochrome, then sorry, but this won’t be the last time: you’re just in training for the turbulence of adult romance. But do yourself a favour and hold on to that feeling — for when you recognise it for what it is, you will also come to recognise how it eases and fades until the unexpected day when someone switches the light back on.

There is a cyclical pattern to most of our lives, if they are allowed to run their cussed course; for every one felled at an early hurdle, 100 more are strengthened by making it through to the end of the cycle — and for children, discovering how to make it through is part of the sweet agony we like to call growing up.

When a therapist is invited to intervene at the first twinge, be it with drugs or the apparently less invasive cognitive behaviour therapy (I remain unconvinced), the only enduring lesson the child learns is that they never, ever need to feel bad; quick, reach for the psycho-novacaine.

I have seen the results of this, more commonly in the US — although we seem to be catching up. One lad, when he was five, watched as his parents went through a hateful divorce, fighting over everything including him until, worn down by it, he wailed and wept. So off to the doc and, sure enough, he returned Ritalin-ed to the eyeballs and with a personal counsellor to boot, both of which developed swiftly into long-term dependencies. Now he is 19 and never weeps or wails. Doesn’t smile much, either. Just a compliant zombie boy, whose parents agree on only one thing in the world: they did everything they could for him, with the receipts to prove it.

As Americans they should have known that one is promised only a right to the pursuit of happiness; not to its elusive capture. As parents they should have known that the boy’s fretful tears, although uncomfortable for all concerned, were not signs of disease or pathology; they were a suitable response to circumstance.

But there, perhaps, lies the lingering danger in licensing a stranger to mess with young minds: his tag of ‘professional’ implies that all others, including and especially parents, are ‘amateurs’ who are qualified by their ignorance only to back off. So no more silly kissings better, no more banal but loving reassurances and no more fond, foolish cross-your-hearts that next term there will be a new best friend.

It would be sad if, by deferring to those who read textbooks, parents were to hasten their own redundancy. In our uneducated clumsiness we might miss a trick here or there; nevertheless for most of us, that is powerfully outweighed by devotion. I would hate to think we could be persuaded that anyone else is better placed to know when shrink-wrapped intrusion is really called for — or when misery is actually no more than an appropriate reaction from a child who needs a few more coloured crayons.

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