Sunday, December 21, 2014

Here We Go Again...The So-Called "Rise" in Cases of Childhood Mental Illness

Photo Courtesy of Mauro Barsi
    Here we go again. Another research study published in the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics brings us news of significant increases in incidences of mental illnesses in children in this country.
     It's enough to make you sick.
     Here is the quotation from the study report's abstract that I find most problematic:

     "For the first time since the NHIS began tracking childhood disability in 1957, the rise in reported prevalence is disproportionately occurring among socially advantaged families. This unexpected finding highlights the need to better understand the social, medical, and environmental factors influencing parent reports of childhood disability."

      Is it obvious to everyone else as well that the reported prevalence which is apparently disproportionately occurring among socially advantaged families is because these are the families whose children are more likely to have access to the kind of medical care that offers children medication for ADD, ADHD, and an entire host of other diagnosed mental illnesses that seem to be appearing so frequently now in classrooms around this country? How on earth could the researchers who did this study find themselves blindsided by their demographic findings?
     What we have in this country is a catastrophic failure of our educational systems and our parenting abilities coming together in a climate in our health care system that defines individuals in terms of their departure from an imaginary norm. 
     There is plenty of responsibility to go around - but there are few takers. We have teaching to tests and we have statewide standards; we have enrichment programs and we have supplemental programs. We have zealous adults who do parenting. We have physicians who are too busy to take coffee breaks.
     We have very little that takes into account that some of the brightest children in our schools are bored out of their minds. Boredom looks like daydreaming. Daydreaming is now pathologized and called ADHD. Individual children - the daydreamers whose creativity could fuel our culture for centuries - are labeled and medicated. 
     These are the children who get brought in for medical evaluations by parents who unwittingly believe that diagnosis and a pill will undo what their own busy schedules have likely potentiated in the first place: their children are not being given the stimulation and supportive attention at home that children need in order to thrive. Parents are so busy learning about how to be good parents by reading and attending classes and staying current with research that they forget their primary responsibility to their offspring is to be present to them in their unique splendor.
     Who suffers most? The same people who always suffer when schools and parents lose their bearings: the children whose right to being protected by their elders is obliterated in misguided school politics and inadequate parenting styles.
     We have a crop of children growing up now under the influence of medications that are altering the very structures of their brains. We have no longitudinal studies to indicate the long-term effects because we haven't been at this medicate-the-kids business for long enough to have meaningful data.
     How can this be a good thing?
     The American Psychiatric Association (with their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-5) in conjunction with the pharmaceutical companies have created a monster. If every little quirk is a disorder, and every little disorder is medicated, how many of our children will be lost in the woods?
     If your child is showing signs of distress at home or in the classroom, talk to him, talk to her. Even better, of course, is to talk to your child as an infant, support your toddler's curiosity and investigation of the world, and be present as a parent - an adult caregiver - from the moment of conception.
     If you find you cannot talk to your child with comfort, or if you feel it is more stressful than fruitful at this point, work with a counselor. Talk about the counseling with the family. Include everyone. A child is a member of a family, and a family is a system.
     Medication is the last recourse, when all other changes have been tried without success.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Bye Bye, Honey Boo Boo - Can We Grow Up Now, Please?

     Are you aware that the range of intelligence as measured by standard IQ tests is greater among the top 2% than it is in the entire rest of the population? 
     Think about that for a minute.
     The implications are enormous.
     The top 2% is measured as two standard deviations above the mean. Since the mean IQ is taken to be 100, two standard deviations renders an IQ of 130. (By way of context, two standard deviations below the mean, or an IQ of 70, is considered by the DSM-5 to be the threshold for intellectual disability, contextualized by what the DSM-5 refers to as the severity of impairment based on adaptive functioning.)
     Since this leaves a working range of 70-130, with a difference of 60 points, and since IQs can be measured to be upwards of 200, you can see the variability as easily as you can see the variability in the leaves of the plants in the photo.
     Is it any surprise, then, that  you may feel a little out of step? That your gifted adolescent may be having a little difficulty locating his or her peers, even when attending schools that cater to gifted children?
     I know that for every mention I make of IQ or any other type of measurement of intellectual capability, there is a legion of individuals who would prefer we not use such language, since it is elitist or because an IQ doesn't represent the whole person, or for an entire host of other irrelevant - and often wrong-headed - reasons
     Therefore, I am going to skip past these objections completely, while acknowledging that they exist, and here's why: no matter how you talk about it, or which terms you use to describe it, there is a kind of intellectual precocity that is very real. Dismiss it semantically at the peril of the individuals whom I am describing as intellectually gifted.
     Every gifted individual is not Sheldon (of The Big Bang Theory). Every gifted individual is not a geek. Every gifted individual is not single-minded. Some are bright, well-rounded, funny, talented, and even good-looking. Let the stereotype demolition begin!
     When the day comes that the most intelligent among us do not feel marginalized by a society that would be better served by honoring and promoting its intellectual riches the way it rewards athletic prowess, changes unimagined by us now will rain down upon our culture.
     As Shakespeare's Hamlet said to Horatio, his buddy from Wittenberg University:

            There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
            Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.  -Hamlet (1.5.167-8) 

     Who is going to bring those things to light, when the individuals capable of doing so are confined to the sidelines of American education and society, because it's elitist to help anyone who is smart enough to figure everything out by him/herself? 
     And don't you think it's interesting that individuals at 70 or below are entitled to accommodations? If people could walk in the shoes of the intellectually gifted for 24 hours, they would be less quick to dismiss this comparison, and more able to understand that there are qualitative and quantitative differences in the ways gifted minds work. A little help and support for them in the existential domains would go a long way.
     I am confident that this is just a passing phase, this anti-intellectualism in which American society is nearly drowning. Honey Boo Boo's show was cancelled. That's a sign of progress, right?


Monday, August 11, 2014

Living Now Means Remembering the Past without Bondage to It

Photo Courtesy of Mauro Barsi
This is a post I wrote five years ago. It seems to have a freshness about it that makes me want to share it again. It first appeared in One Heart, Many Gardens, a blog which I have sadly neglected of late, about spirituality in the garden.

The past is what comes before this moment, but it is not a vessel into which you must pour the rest of your life. Nor are you obligated to look back in bondage: the present is not cast by tentacles from the past.

The dense web of memory (think of Marcel Proust) can seduce you into the illusion that you are present to the unfolding of your life if indulging in memories. But by coddling your memories you are looking backward, while each new moment glides past unnoticed like a new frame for an old photograph.

I know a woman who is so blind to today that she compares everything she does, hears, and sees either favorably or unfavorably to what she did, heard or saw as a child. Nothing exists in its own new moment: nothing new can happen. It is as if her book is already written and all that remains of the task is appending the footnotes.

In this way, the original memory disappears like a sunken ship overwhelmed by coral--a new monolith calcifies. Retrospection becomes a celebration of vocabulary: how many ways can you conjure anew something that once was but is no more? And if you do this repeatedly, you risk becoming like dust left in the corners as your life sweeps by.

Live bigger than that. Moderate your habit of looking in the rear view mirror in order to drive forward.

Suit up for snorkeling. Try the french fries with white truffles. Wear red. Tomorrow, do something else. Give yourself over to radical awareness of the present. It doesn't matter what you used to do, or what you used to resist doing.

On this plane and in this dimension, the arrow of time only goes in one direction. Unless you possess superhuman powers, why not go with the flow?

Saturday, March 15, 2014

We Ignore Gifted Students at Our Own Peril: Who Else Will Light the Way to the Future?

Photo courtesy of Mauro Barsi
     An article came across my desk this morning that made me want to shout out the window.
     Why was I so excited? Because every time someone writes an article that shares the futility I feel when I consider the squandering of limited academic support resources on the least capable of our students, while the most capable languish in the back of classrooms across the country because "they're smart enough to figure out everything on their own," I experience a warm hope. My hope, my dream, is that somehow our society will transform itself into a culture of abetting the best and the brightest, instead of hobbling them while dunderheadedly insisting on offering support to the least capable, where the returns on the investment of the already meager resources are inevitably bound to be limited. This kind of thinking is absolutely backwards. Any cost/benefit analyst of any stripe should be able to figure this out.
     Universities don't offer full-ride scholarships to athletes who can't perform. High schools don't put extra effort into fueling unwarranted dreams of the least physically coordinated students to become excellent soccer players. Yet this is the logic our schools apply to allocating resources for students based on their native intellectual capabilities. People are afraid of being called elitist if they advocate for supporting the gifted. The paradox of over-supporting the least competent arises and this posture and practice are somehow held as being kind and generous and appropriate. This is nonsense.
     Please do not misconstrue my point. I am not saying that less intelligent children should be ignored in favor of their more intelligent classmates. No child should be ignored.
     My point is, and the authors of this linked article agree, that we ignore the special needs of our most highly capable students for support and stimulation at our own peril: where else will the bright lights come from for leading us into the future, if not from the most intelligent among younger generations?
     You can find the article here:

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Have You Ever Considered the Story of the Ugly Duckling for Your Gifted Child?

Photo Courtesy of Mauro Barsi
     Your young child gets in the car after school and is more quiet than usual. As you drive, you watch him from the rear view mirror, and see that he appears to be lost in thought, looking out the window. You can feel  his sadness.
     "Is something bothering you, sweetheart?" you ask.
     But you know that's not true. Do you ask the same question another way? Do you say, "Tell me about your day," with a false nonchalance?
     Or do you let him sit there, alone with his thoughts, clearly in pain, as you struggle with your own thoughts about how you might soothe him?
     Sometimes, and particularly in the case of very young children, experiences that cause distress are beyond the child's ability to articulate. They're not old enough yet to understand the behavior of other children, nor are they able to identify and name their own feelings.
     When a bright child is shunned for always having the right answers, or for always being willing to volunteer for a project, or raising a hand first when the teacher asks a question, the child is confused: the experience is that by being him/herself, s/he is displaying undesirable behavior. But there's no clear evidence of what an alternative or preferred behavior might be. Gradually, early eagerness in classroom discussions can fade into reticence, which can appear to a teacher to be an unwillingness to participate. This backfires even further, as the child is then corrected for lack of participation. Where is the balance point?
     The child is caught between being accepted/rejected by peers, or being chastised by a teacher for performing below ability. And then there is that third thing, which I mentioned earlier: where in this is the place for the child to express him/herself authentically? to pursue sincere interests? to display his native academic enthusiasm and curiosity?
     You can help, as you already know, by offering the kind of enrichment at home that the child seeks but does not find in the classroom. Supporting interests or hobbies, speaking to the child with respect when these interests arise in conversation, and treating them as the normal expression of your child's abilities and proclivities can go a long way toward creating balance for him as he tries to sort out his sense of who he is.
     The more respect you demonstrate in these conversations, the more normal they will seem to the child, because your respect equals acceptance. If he can feel secure in this, then he might be able to open up to you about the way he feels at school when he is ridiculed, marginalized, or just teased for demonstrating the same skills and interests in the classroom.
     If he permits this conversation to arise, you can take the lead by discussing how everyone has difference gifts, interests, and talents, and that sometimes other children feel uncomfortable around children whose ways are different from the ways of most children.
    It might even be a time to bring in the Hans Christian Andersen tale of The Ugly Duckling. This story does not just apply to physical beauty: it has deep ramifications for growth and development of any gift a child may have that may not be perceived or appreciated as a gift when the child is very young.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Prejudice against Giftedness in American Society: The Cost

Photo courtesy of Mauro Barsi     
     It's easy to feel alone. For one thing, your intelligence sets you apart. For another, it is very possible that in the course of any ordinary day, the very intelligence that gives you such great joy is also called out in an "I was just kidding" sort of way:  "Let's ask the genius," or, "What do you mean, you 'don't get it?' I thought you knew everything."
     This prejudice is deeply rooted in American culture. We are living in a time when intelligence is undervalued. Worse, though, than being underrated, in my opinion, is the fact that it is also considered elitist to claim high intelligence. It is not sufficiently supported in our school systems, because it seems that many educators have determined that intelligent children can get along well enough on their own, while their less intelligent classmates seem to deserve the oftentimes limited extra resources for supplementing children's progress in schools across the USA.
     Unfortunately, this is wrongheadedness of the highest order.
     Children of deep or profound intelligence require as much support and encouragement as children whose native intelligence places them on the other side the slope of the bell curve. It is daunting, for example, for a young child to have a question in class that the teacher can't answer, for which a dissembling response is offered in place of honest discourse or encouragement for the child to work with him/her to investigate further to find an answer, or at least offering an indication that honors the process the child demonstrates in the inquiry, rather than sending him/her home to "look it up" or, worse, ignoring the question completely.
     When we ignore our brightest children, we don't just give them the message that their intelligence is weird or wrong. Children incorporate this and interpret it to mean that there is something weird or wrong with them.
     Possible responses include withdrawing into themselves, disregarding their school work in an attempt to fit in with their peers, indulging in self-destructive behavior such as cutting, abusing alcohol, or using drugs. They can become oppositional to the parents whom they subliminally blame for the fact that they are intelligent in the first place, and whom they also may blame for not helping them with the suffering they are not even able to articulate.
     How can  you best support your intelligent child when the loud voice of the world around him or her seems to favor Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus instead of anyone who actually demonstrates skills or talent? It will take your time and your energy to locate them, but in every community there are programs and organizations designed to help you offer encouragement to your gifted child. Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG) is a place to start: Mensa offers groups and programs for children. Universities across the country have special programs for gifted children, such as the Robinson Center for Young Scholars at the University of Washington here in Seattle, or the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth,
     The most important thing is to help your child understand that the very nature of intellectual giftedness is such that those endowed with it are in a very small pool of peers. You can help best by finding those peers, identifying these gifts as normal for your child, and helping him or her identify and cope with such responses as jealousy, envy, prejudice, or ridicule in peers and, unfortunately, in teachers and adults who might, for their own reasons, fell threatened by high intelligence in children.
     We are stunting the source of the great future of our country and our culture if we continue the downward pressure on our most gifted to conform to the norms set by society at large, which seems to marginalize original thinkers unless they are also billionaire original thinkers in our consumerist culture that values financial gain over everything else. Our culture has become one that, to paraphrase my mother, knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. I can easily imagine the Dowager Countess Grantham on Downton Abbey uttering such a phrase; the fact that she is the person who comes to mind as I write these words suggests to me, and also perhaps to you, that this is a sentiment of an earlier time. This is not the currency of American thought today.
      Garden variety geniuses - and I apply this term with all the richness of irony that it deserves - are  individuals who need love, support, challenges, and understanding.
     You and I know these children are our future. Or is just that we hope they are? I believe that it is in our hands to make it so.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Bringing the Gift of your Intelligence into the World: The Eagle and the Thrush

Photo Courtesy of Mauro Barsi
     Sometimes intellectual giftedness is the greatest joy an individual can experience. The richness of sensory information, the broad capabilities for emotional and analytical responses to experiences, the finely tuned nature of discernment for details and larger concepts - these are some of the many fruits of high intelligence.
     Often daily life in our mundane and consumerist culture grinds away at the sensitivities of the gifted individual. It can cause a person to wonder whether he or she is the only one capable of seeing the beauty in a sunset, or at least the only one to whom such exquisite combinations of colors, scents, energy seem apparent and meaningful. It can seem as if more people are interested in getting home from work than in relishing the moment as the sun drops completely below the horizon.
     It's an illusion of alienation, however. There are other sensitive souls sharing the beauty of such a moment. You may not be in contact with them in the moment when your sensory imput is nearly bringing you to tears, but know that they exist in this world, and that that they, also, are looking for you.
     If you look at the photo above, you will see a  mix of alpine wildflowers, a cloud, some trees, a blue sky. For many people, it represents terrain to be covered while trekkiing, the earth underfoot as the greater adventure is happening in a separate domain, that of "trekking," and that of building an experience to recount to friends once back at home.
     The sensitive individual will have that experience as well, but it will be enhanced by a broader awareness that the flowers and the sky and the self are one: there is no separation. There is no trekker, nor is there trekking. There is being in the world, and the world is also in us, as quantum physicists now tell us in support of the cries of mystics and spiritual teachers throughout the millenia.
     There are also those among us who operate on a level of awareness that is shallower than what I describe. They live on a plane bereft of the beauty available to the sensitive person. They cannot see what you see.
     Perhaps it is your role to bring this beauty to the lives of those who cannot otherwise perceive it.
     In a tale from the native people of the Northwest Coast, a tiny thrush snuggled beneath the wings of the mighty eagle until the eagle could soar no higher. The thrush then spread his own tiny wings to fly from that point to celestial realms, and hearing the music of the heavens,  brought it back to earth for all to enjoy.
     Perhaps, like the thrush, you are sensitive to realms beyond the reach of most. Perhaps you can bring your vision and experience to those who otherwise might not be able to see it.
     Be the thrush.
     Share your vision.
     Everyone will not understand you, but those who do will be forever changed and forever grateful.