When Something Is Wrong

We see a trend towards wanting to make these fast diagnoses. Screening programs such as depression may increase awareness of the problem of depression, but often all it does is support the idea that depression is a singular biological entity. This idea is highly promoted by the pharmaceutical industry, but has no support in the literature.

— Final Report of The Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, Out of the Shadows at Last, 2006When Something' s Wrong

The Canadian Psychiatric Foundation would have us believe that one in five school children has a mental disorder. Two recently published handbooks, When Something’s Wrong: Ideas for Teachers and a companion book When Something’s Wrong: Ideas for Families are currently being promoted in schools across Ontario with the goal of “intervening early in the life of a great many children who are said to be living with mental illness.”

This promotional campaign in Ontario schools is seen as a first step in a plan by mental health advocates to establish schools as sites for the delivery of mental health services across Canada.

The idea to involve schools was envisioned in the 2006 report of the Standing Senate Committee on mental health, Out of the Shadows at Last, and the subsequent creation of the Mental Health Commission of Canada (2007) by the Harper Government. In 2007, Simon Davidson, a psychiatrist, who heads up the advisory committee on children and youth for the Commission, was reported by the Toronto Star to be looking forward to a new strategy to deal with mental illness. Davidson, said the Star, “envisions…making schools the hub for early diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders.”

Much of what is occurring today with respect to what governments are doing in education and their partnerships with the mental health industry lies below the public’s radar screen. Many Canadians would be shocked to learn that thousands of children and teens in Canadian schools are currently over-diagnosed and over-treated with psychiatric medications and that the school, which has long been considered a center for learning the three Rs, is now becoming a setting to screen children for mental disorders.

There has been a steady rise in the use of psychiatric medications in children over the last decade in Canada. Particularly disturbing is the current trend to prescribe medications, often more than one at the same time, such as concerta, biphentin, prozac, risperdal, zyprexa, zoloft and others, to pre-schoolers, children and teens, thus endangering their delicate maturational balance.

A recent study in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry and reported in the Ottawa Citizen found a fourfold increase in the past decade of some of the most potent psychiatric drugs, for example, antipsychotic medications such as risperdal, being given for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders. These drugs are being prescribed by doctors despite the fact Health Canada has not approved them as safe or effective for children.

Many other psychiatric drugs are also considered just as questionable in regard to their long-term safety in children. Why then is the Foundation and the Mental Health Commission claiming that children are not being adequately treated for mental illness and need more aggressive screening programs and treatments, which are more often than not psychiatric drugs?

According to the authors of these handbooks, a mental disorder is a disturbance of brain functioning that causes problems with mood, behaviour, or thinking. Teachers and families are being told that these disturbances can cause a number of mental disorders that can afflict a young child or teen, ranging from anxiety, autism, depression, eating disorders, impulse control, mood and bipolar disorders, to schizophrenia, suicide and Tourette Syndrome.

The teacher’s handbook contains lessons on how to identify mental disorders and they are encouraged to initiate a referral to the appropriate community service, such as a mental health clinic, so these children can be identified, and treated. Families are told that mental disorders in their children are not the result of poor parenting or lack of willpower, but of a chemical imbalance in the brain, and that treatment early in the child’s life can help children lead normal lives.

To unsuspecting teachers and parents, the psychiatric dogma in these training manuals sounds compelling and compassionate. Except, evidence has been mounting, particularly in the United States, that many mental health advocates have alliances with pharmaceutical companies. Says the Foundation, “if one treatment does not work, the odds are good that another one will, and new medications and treatments are continually being developed through research.”

There is definitely something wrong and unsound with an agenda that exploits teachers, children and their families with pseudoscientific theories. There is no evidence-based research to prove that the mental disorders cited in these handbooks are the result of any chemical imbalance, or brain disturbance in children.

Selling diseases and pharmaceutical products is what these handbooks are all about. Drug companies are using the same tactics that tobacco companies once used. The tobacco industry once employed doctors and celebrities to sell their products and concluded scientifically, on the basis of their studies, that cigarettes were not addictive or life threatening.

A similar campaign first surfaced in the United States in 2001 with the Surgeon General’s Report on mental health in children. Canada’s Standing Senate Committee Report Out of The Shadows is basically a carbon copy of this document in its content and its prescription of the need to get into schools and train teachers to be “disease spotters.”

The story of the American campaign has been one of drug company fraud, corruption of industry partners, governmental complicity in their support of the mental health-drug company alliance and inadequate governmental regulations to protect children. More importantly, children and teens have suffered with drug treatments, not been made well.

It is distressing for the future well-being of our children and youth that so many organizations that purport to be advocates for children have endorsed the Foundation’s booklet. These include the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, The Hospital for Sick Children Foundation, Canadian Association for School Health and others.

However, the heavy endorsement of the handbooks by multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical companies such as Janssen-Ortho Inc., Pfizer Canada Inc., Sanofi-Synthela is not surprising.  They are set to profit enormously from the advice proffered in the booklets, as will other vested interest groups and individuals that benefit from drug industry grants and dollars.

The false belief that many of our children are mentally ill and can be cured with toxic psychiatric drugs is an alarming and dangerous trend. As Lawrence Diller, a pediatrician in the United States, recently wrote, “How long can this craziness continue without a loud professional scream?” That’s not likely to happen as long as our government supports the use of schools to indoctrinate teachers, families and their children.

There is something wrong here.

About the Contributor

Jo Ann Nolan is a social worker with over twenty-five years experience in government, social service and school settings.