Carol Sarler

Feel the pain

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

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.

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