Psychiatric Drugs and Fallacies: Fateful Decisions for Our Children
by John Breeding, Ph.D. (2000)

A young mother came into my office yesterday with her live-in boyfriend of two years for a counseling session related to the parenting of her seven-year-old son, Nathan. This was our fourth meeting; we had spent the two previous sessions playing very hard with Nathan. In this session, the mother, call her Alice, needed to counsel on how hard it was to be Nathan's parent. He reportedly had been different and difficult from the beginning. She reported early seizure-like activity, a most challenging temperament, great sensitivity to various types of stimulation, intense frustration, aggressive tantrums, and other apparent developmental difficulties. She had taken him to doctors from a young age, and had obtained a variety of mostly nonspecific diagnoses of developmental difficulties.

Alice was especially frustrated because she felt judged and unappreciated as a parent. She was hurt and angry that the Montessori school which Nathan had attended at ages 4 and 5 had ultimately rejected him; she felt like she had been judged by that community, especially other parents who she thought were blaming her and her noncomformist lifestyle for Nathan's challenging behavior. And she was angry that "both camps" of opinion regarding "medication" seemed to judge her; the pro-Ritalin forces challenged her on her reluctance to use Ritalin, and the anti-Ritalin group strongly felt that she should hold out and not give her child this harmful drug.

When I see a situation where an individual feels victimized by the beliefs of outer authorities, in this case torn between these two camps, I consider the teaching that our outer dilemmas often mirror our inner challenges. I assumed that Alice needed to get more clear about the ground on which she stood, which camp she was really in; in other words, to find her own truth in the situation. What I've discovered as a general truth, and specifically in parenting, is that life systematically and relentlessly challenges our illusions; in particular; the illusion that we can find truth by reliance on external authority. It seems that we are faced again and again, at different levels, with the fact that our own inner truth is in conflict with the beliefs of tribal authorities. We feel betrayed and let down; we are disillusioned and forced to reflect on our own beliefs, thrust back upon our own thinking.

So I wondered out loud about this with Alice. She told me me that she was clear, and that while she basically agreed with the idea that these "medications" are not good for children, she also felt that, in her family's case, it had been helpful. Whereas I consistently use the term drugs since I do not consider Ritalin or other psychiatric drugs to be medicines because of the inability to verify any medical disease to treat, Alice consistently clung to the term medicine. She did not appreciate being judged for it -- no more than she appreciated being judged for resisting the use of "medication" now. Nathan had been diagnosed at age five with "Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder" (ADHD), and prescribed Ritalin which he had taken for a year. Alice thought the Ritalin was a big help in slowing him down enough to listen and process information in a diferent way. She and her boyfriend, Aaron, both strongly felt that he was much easier to be with then, and that the stress reduction for them was enough to allow them to think more easily and begin considering other alternatives such as nutritional supplementation for helping Nathan.

The fact that the drugs often "work" in that they alter mood, thought, and action, tends to at least temporarily justify the action. The drugs also work, of course, in placating the external authorities demanding and expecting compliance with their belief that the drugs should be used. My own thinking is that fully informed adults should have every right to voluntarily use any drugs they wish, so long as they don't endanger others in doing so. Children, however, are not able to give fully informed consent to drug use; it is our responsiblity as adults to ensure every possible opportunity for optimal development on all levels. I intensely believe and feel that we need to defend and protect our children from ingestion of powerful toxic drugs, most definitely including those prescribed by psychiatry. But Alice already knew my thinking, and I wanted to support her, not judge her.

I see variations of these ideas and choices every day. A great percentage of those who take psychiatric drugs or give them to their children share Alice's beliefs that the drugs are in general not a good thing, certainly not ideal. Though they would rather not, they will and do use them for relief: relief from the inner pressures of tension, fear and desperation; relief from the outer pressures of judgment and coercion. There is a physician, Lawrence Diller, who just wrote a bestselling book on Ritalin and ADHD, presenting clear and strong evidence of the enormous surge in use of psychiatric drugs with children, arguing that, "the 700% rise in Ritalin use is our canary in the mind shaft for the middle class warning us that we are not meeting the needs of all our children, not just those with ADD. It's time we rethought our priorities and expectations unless we want a nation of kids running on Ritalin."1 Dr. Diller decries the trend, basically in agreement with my own thesis (presented in my book, The Wildest Colts Make The Best Horses) that this trend is reflective of major distress in our society on all levels, and that we need to take responsility for this, rather than try to make our children shrink to fit in situations that do not meet their needs. He states that, "as a citizen I must speak out about the social conditions that create the living imbalance. Otherwise I am complicitous with forces and values that I believe are bad for children." At the same time, he concludes that, "as a physician after assessing the child, his family and school situation, I keep prescribing Ritalin. My job is to ease suffering and Ritalin will help round and octagonal peg kids fit into rather rigid square educational holes."

Isn't this precisely the same conclusion as all those individuals who take psychiatric drugs even though they know it's not really good for them, and all those millions of parents who give psychiatric drugs to their beloved children, even though it rends their hearts. Alice is a wonderful, loving, caring and devoted mother. Dr. Diller is an intelligent, compassionate doctor. They both see the data and the trends and know that something is afoul in the land. Yet they conclude that giving children Ritalin eases suffering more than not giving it. As a friend of mine once told me when I was complaining about the possibility of living with my girlfriend and her two children, thus being full-time with them, while only part-time with my own two children, "They're all our children." So mine is not to judge anyone, but it is to take full responsibility for the way we care for our children. And that requires me to think deeply in discerning the truth to the best of my ability, and to speak out and take a stand against abuse and oppression where I see it.


Here is an exposition of psychiatry's guiding belief system, that of biological psychiatry, or biopsychiatry for short. The fundamental, erroneous assumptions of psychiatry are as follows:

  1. Social adjustment is good.
  2. Failure to adjust is the result of "mental illness (ADHD)."
  3. "Mental illness" (ADHD) is a medical disease.
  4. "Mental illness" (ADHD) is the result of biological and/or genetic defects.
  5. "Mental illness" (ADHD) is chronic, progressive, and incurable.
  6. "Mental illness"(ADHD) can be controlled primarily by drugs; secondarily, for serious mental illness, by electroshock. (Electroshock has not, to my knowledge been used to "treat "ADHD, though it is used on children.)
  7. People with "mental illness" (ADHD) are irrational, often unable to make responsible decisions for themselves; therefore, coercion is necessary and justified.2

This essay is not for the benefit of those who are true believers in biopsychiatry; I have no illusions regarding the task of changing a convinced mind by virtue of intellectual debate. I am writing to share my thinking with those who, like Alice and Dr. Diller, know that the theory and practice of biopsychiatry are flawed and dangerous, but still believe that, under the circumstances, drugs are the best answer for the children they want to help. How can this be? How can we better understand this?

Dr. Diller argues that he gives these children drugs to lessen their suffering. Most significant to our session that day, Alice had met with Nathan's neurologist earlier in the week. The doctor reportedly couldn't understand her current decision not to use "medication" with Nathan; he had prescribed Adderall, a combination of three different amphetamine-like stimulant drugs often used as an alternative to Ritalin. He asked Alice a question which has been posed either directly or indirectly to literally millions of parents around the country in this decade: "If your child had diabetes, you'd give him insulin wouldn't you?" This neurologist no doubt believed that he would lessen Nathan's suffering by giving him Adderall, and he wanted Alice to feel gulty that she was depriving her son of his relief "medication." I will address this issue of suffering below, but first let's continue the story of my session with Alice.

Alice faced me, and asked, "What could I say?" I have an easy answer to that question, but this was not the time for an easy answer, at least not right away. Alice's need for information, implied in her question to me, was secondary to her need to express some of the emotional energy behind the question. This is difficult to convey in writing, but I can tell you that it has a lot to do with a pattern of what I call chronic hopelessness, the feeling that there's just no use, no way out, that it's too much, too overwhelming, etc. There certainly are most extremely difficult and challenging circumstances in life, and our limitations as individuals to influence the course of events are real. The relevant teaching, however, is that the feeling of chronic hopelessness in adults always says more about we who feel it than it does about the circumstances we're in; even under the most appalling conditions, it is possible to feel free and alive inside. Chronic hopelessness is a feeling memory from past situations as children when we really were victims of circumstances and the adults we depended on did not fulfill their responsibility for our care.

Alice needed to counsel on this hopelessness, and the good news was that she was in touch with her anger, one of the very best antidotes to hopelessness. She was mad, and needed and deserved to be heard in her righteous indignation at the invalidating treatment she had received from prior medical and "mental health" professionals, as well as from the adults in the two opposing drug camps. She needed her thinking and opinions to be heard and validated in a respectful way. Specifically, before I responded directly to her question about how she could answer the neurologist, I needed to sincerely, openly and respectfully draw her out and listen to her thinking about the value of using "medication" for her son. So I asked her what was good about Ritalin for Nathan, and she and her boyfriend talked more about slowing Nathan down, and gaining some relief, and his being less volatile. I felt genuine respect and great empathy for both of these young adults; it was obvious they cared deeply, and were really working hard as parents. Alice still has a lot of hurt and anger she needs to express, but I believe she felt heard and understood by me. So I answered the question of "what could I say" to this neurologist.

ADHD Fraud

The short version is that with diabetes you have legitimate physical, medical evidence of disease; in this case a measure of abnormal blood sugar levels in the blood, and evidence of pancreatic malfunction. This is what justifies a medical intervention and treatment. So a good response to the doctor's question is to ask for the medical evidence that there exists a disease which requires treatment. I am indebted to my friend, Dr. Fred Baughman, a neurologist who addressed the Food and Drug Administration, The Drug Enforcement Agency, Ciba-Geigy (now Novartis, manufacturers of Ritalin), and top ADHD researchers around the country, including the National Institute of Mental Health, with a simple request to show him any article(s) in the peer-reviewed scientific literature that constitutes proof of a physical or chemical abnormality in ADHD making it a "disease" or a medical syndrome. Through sheer determination and persistence, Dr. Baughman eventually got reponses from everyone he addressed. They all concluded that, unlike real disease that Dr. Baughman had himself uncovered and documented, there exists absolutely no objective validation of the diagnosis. The truth is that there is no way of confirming ADHD as a medical disease.3

The harder truth is that the medical treatment of ADHD is a fraud. When Dr. Diller prescribes Ritalin for a disease which is not a disease, he is not practicing medicine in any legitimate sense of what he is credentialled by the state to do. You cannot, with any credibility, medically treat a non-existent disease. So if it is not medicine, what is really going on? Clearly, doctors are ordained by society to give drugs for so-called psychiatric illnesses, including millions of our "sick" school-age children. Many are true believers, brainwashed into a blind faith in biologically or genetically-based "mental illness," masquerading as science, despite the consistent lack of authentic scientific evidence.4

Others, like Dr. Diller, know it's a fraud, yet still give the drugs. Obviously, they consider their role as physicians to be different than that of a practitioner of legitimate medical science. Dr. Diller, as noted above, says that his job is to ease suffering, and that includes using psychiatric drugs to "help round and octagonal peg kids fit into rather rigid square educational holes." So is that a legitimate role for a physician? And does it truly ease suffering? In order to properly address these essential questions, I need to introduce basic theory on the concept and nature of oppression.

Psychiatric Oppression

Oppression is the systematic mistreatment of individuals simply because they are members of a certain group; hence, we think of racism and sexism as examples of the oppression of people of color and of women. Oppression theory teaches us that the root cause of oppression is economic, that certain groups are targeted for mistreatment in order to enhance the economic privilege of more powerful groups, and to enforce the status quo. The victims of oppression are always blamed for their condition, and in some way thought to be deserving of or suited to their inferior position. Slaves were lazy, recalcitrant, stupid, genetically inferior, etc. Women's place was in the home; they were too emotional or delicate for real power. The dominant white people were doing a righteous and benevolent kindness in caring for these inferior human animals; men were noble and godly in providing for and protecting the fairer sex.

Oppression is the systematic, institutionalized, one-way expression of power inequity in a society. Feelings and emotions are involved, but these are secondary; the real issue is power. Oppression is a real external force, and it hurts. Eventually it becomes internalized; as the great American writer James Baldwin stated, "It's not the world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do it to yourself."5 Oppression also makes us forget. Oppressive enforcement of power, originally installed and later as need be demonstrated in external form, is internalized, and then we begin to assume that's just the way life is and just the way we are -- we forget that there is oppression.

Two specific forms of oppression are crucial to our present discussion. The first is what I call adultism, the systematic mistreatment of young people by adults simply because they are young; a good way to determine susceptibility as an agent of adultism is to examine your behavior towards children from the question, "Would I treat another adult in the same way?" Mostly it's an issue of respect. Adultism is essential to understand because its effects form the glue which allows other oppressions to stick. What I mean by this is that when we are treated poorly as children, we internalize the ideas and feelings that life is unfair, that rank and power can and should be used for personal advantage, and that we are somehow unworthy of complete respect, incapable of clear thinking, and unable to become our own authority. If our true nature was not obscured by this motley and dangerous assortment of distress recordings, there is no way we would accept the cruel and irrational beliefs and practices of other forms of oppression such as racism and sexism. Disrespect and unfair use of rank and power toward our children lay the groundwork for various manifestations of human unfairness and cruelty.

The second form of oppression that needs to be understood is what I call psychiatric oppression; it is the systematic mistreatment of people labeled as "mentally ill," including children diagnosed with fictitious illnesses such as ADHD. Psychiatry is institutionalized in our society, and its practices are guided by the worldview of biopsychiatry. Psychiatric diagnosis and treatment act to enforce the major message of adultism that one is inadequate, defective, and unworthy of complete respect. An additional specific message is that you need drugs in order to control and cope with the effects of your "illness."

Ritalin and Suffering

Considering, now, the question of suffering and how to lessen it, we must take a close look at just exactly what is meant by Dr. Diller's statement. What is the message conveyed with his assertion that, "Ritalin will help round and octagonal peg kids fit into rather rigid square educational holes." Here is a partial explication:

  1. Social adjustment is good.
  2. Failures in social adjustment are due to forcing children to conform to situations and expectations that do not meet their real needs.
  3. Failures in social adjustment cause suffering.
  4. My job as a physician is to ease suffering.
  5. Ritalin helps children conform.
  6. Therefore, I can ease suffering by giving Ritalin to children.

Let's look at them one by one.

Social adjustment is good. My own belief is that while the ability to adjust socially is important, social adjustment itself may or may not be good. This can be dramatized by considering adjustment to the social climate of the Nazi holocaust, or North American slavery, or the genocide of indigenous peoples anywhere.

Failures in social adjustment are due to forcing children to conform to situations and expectations that do not meet their real needs. I agree. Failures of children to adjust to school tell us nothing about their "mental illnesses," but speak volumes about the extent and ubiquity of our society's failure to think well about our children and truly meet their needs. It's important for children to learn how to get along in various situations, and how to avoid drawing sanction upon themselves. We all benefit from learning that oppression does not demand conformity, only the appearance of conformity. But this is a complex and subtle idea. Young children most of all need to be protected from the harm of oppression so that they can develop in a wholesome way, and learn to wield and express their unique gifts in the community. It is a mistake to force our children to fit molds imposed upon them according to the needs of the adult order. The proper task of the community of adults is just exactly the other way around; we need to transform ourselves and our community to meet the real needs of our children. But I imagine that both Alice and Dr. Diller would agree with what I am saying. Let's go on to number three.

Failures in social adjustment cause suffering. Failure in a given task is purely a matter of not being able to do the task; sometimes we call it a mistake. We tend in our competitive culture to view mistakes as a bad thing to be avoided; few of us manage to retain or develop the ability to truly live life from the point of view that mistakes are good and necessary, that that's how we learn -- no shame, no problem. Instead, inability to do the task becomes FAILURE, and that is something to suffer over. Failure, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder; it is a judgment based on comparison to an imposed standard of expected performance. A child does what a child does, and we judge it as success or failure according to our expectations and demands. Eventually, as described above, the child internalizes both the standard and the evaluation; I failed to live up to what I should so I am a failure. I would argue, then, that it is not failure that causes suffering, but oppression, in the form of adultism which imposes arbitrary standards and an adult shame-based worldview, causing children to feel and think of themselves as failures, and to suffer as a result.

I believe it was Peter Breggin who coined the aphorism that, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; mental illness is in the eye of the controller." I like to say that ADHD is one of those funny diseases -- funny because it exists in some settings, and not in others; funny because the distress often exists in the people around the patient, rather than in the patient. ADHD does not exist as a real disease; it is, however, a very real label imposed on children, with very real consequences. On a physical level, the recommended drugs are toxic with a long list of deleterious effects which you can obtain from your local pharmacist or any number of books.6 On a psychological level, there are two especially harmful effects. First is deprivation of the right to fully develop a character, and a way of living with self and world in a drug-free state. Second is the burden of shame, the feeling that goes with the conviction that I am somehow flawed and defective, that I am not worthy and wonderful, completely lovable and acceptable just the way I am. Regarding Ritalin, the fact is that, to quote Mary Eberstadt, "methylphenidate looks like an amphetamine (chemically), acts like an amphetamine (effects), and is abused like an amphetamine (recreational use, Emergency room visits, pharmacy break-ins)."7 (parentheses mine, documented in Ms. Eberstadt's article).

The more I think and talk and write about all this, the more often I discover another "bottom line." Just now, it is that these stimulant drugs for children truly are about enforcement of a value so deeply rooted in our culture that to oppose it puts one immediately at risk of either being labeled and diagnosed as "mentally ill," or cast among the rapidly growing ranks of our homeless and imprisoned. Amphetamines enhance productivity. Millions of adult (and an alarmingly increasing number of children8) Americans take psychiatric stimulants like Prozac to keep producing; we give millions of our children stimulant drugs when production is impaired. Thomas Armstrong calls Ritalin and related drugs "cognitive steroids," used in the manner which amphetamines have been well-demonstrated to produce an effect --narrowing of focus of attention to better perform boring, repetitive tasks like schoolwork for students, office work for adults. When society holds out production as the most valued criterion for inclusion, then failure to produce results in suffering.

My job as a physician is to ease suffering. Yes, through the practice of medicine, and through compassionate and loving human kindness.

Ritalin helps children conform. Sometimes. Sometimes it makes them "psychotic," sometimes aggressive, sometimes suicidal, sometimes anxious, sometimes nauseous, sometimes it kills them. When it "works" very well, the child is observed to produce better in the classroom, thus to better conform. And this, the research shows us, is the only positive short-term outcome on any criteria. Long-term, there is no positive effect in any aspect of child functioning: social, behavioral or academic. The essential purpose of oppression is to enforce conformity to the status quo.

Therefore, I can ease suffering by giving Ritalin to children. This is a grave conclusion, deserving of profound consideration. I know it is one that Dr. Diller does not take lightly, and that parents do not take lightly when they decide to give psychiatric drugs to their children. Abraham Lincoln, in an 1854 speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, stated that: "I would consent to any great evil, to avoid an even greater one."9 Every parent knows the pull to punish or discipline their child in hopes that even greater misfortune might not befall them. What about the mother who scolds her child to keep him from disturbing a father prone to rage attacks? The most dramatic example which comes to mind is that of the lead character, played by Oprah Winfrey, in the movie version of Toni Morrison's novel, Beloved. This woman escapes with her children from a very cruel slave plantation across the river to freedom in Ohio. After a time there, the plantation owner shows up with the sheriff to reclaim his property. She grabs her children and hides in a shed; when the sheriff and his men come and open the door, they find her with a knife, covered in the blood of her mutilated children. She paid a terrrible price, but her children did not go back into slavery. This is an extreme example, but it clearly illustrates the principle. Given the reality of slavery, who are we to judge? Given the reality of today's oppression, and society's lack of resolve to really meet the needs of our children, who are we to judge those who decide that Ritalin is a better choice than continued pressure and disapproval and sanction?

There are, of course, very significant differences between the position of a Black slave and a free America. And these have to do with freedom, and power, and opportunity, and choices, and responsibility. Another bottom line in this issue of psychiatry as a response to social problems has to do with responsibility. A clear and consistent effect of the decision to act from the worldview of psychiatry, and reduce complex problems to genetic or biological defects in an individual, is that everyone on every level is absolved of responsibility. Regarding ADHD, the child's not responsible, he's sick. The individual adults, the communiity, the institutions, and the society are all absolved of the responsibility to keep thinking and to take on the challenge of meeting the real needs of that child and of all our children. It is all too easy to act as if we have as little power as a slave on a plantation; deep feelings of chronic hopelessness seem to be firmly planted in all of our psyches, and we have endless justifications which allow us to acquiesce and conform to oppression with a seemingly clear conscience. We live in an aura of innocence. An estimated 5,000,000 children on methylphenidate,10 and hundreds of thousands of others on other toxic drugs,11 given to them by the adults who care for them. It must be medicine; heaven knows it can't be what some of us are calling institutionalized child abuse!

Big and Noble Thoughts

Consider the following words of the great Jewish philosopher, Joshua Abraham Heschel, writing in the aftermath of World War II: Soldiers in the horror of battle offer solemn testimony that life is not a hunt for pleasure, but an engagement for service; that there are things more valuable than life; that the world is not a vacuum. Either we make it an altar for God or it is invaded by demons. There can be no neutrality. Either we are ministers of the sacred or slaves of evil. Let the blasphemy of our time not become an eternal scandal.12

In order to assume a proper position on this issue, it is necessary to shed all vestige of denial, and take to heart the reality that we are abandoning the needs of our children and poisoning milliions of them with toxic drugs. There are no easy solutions here, but there is an attitude which is appropriate to the situation and task at hand; it is an attitude in keeping with the reality that we are in a crisis of epic proportions. It is an attitude that requires an expansive mind and an open heart, that will stand strong against oppression and in defense of the sacred magnificence that is the true nature of our children. Again in the words of Heschel: Our energies are too abundant for living indifferently. We are in need of an endless purpose to absorb our immense power, if our souls are not to run amok. We are either the ministers of the sacred or slaves of evil.13

Our children desperately need us to call ourselves forward into our power and responsibility, and into a grand and noble, endless purpose. This purpose is not to produce and conform; it is to love and to serve, and to express and share our unique gifts creatively with our community. This requires a bountiful imagination, and Ritalin is most definitely not about fostering imagination.

A Grand Imagination

Toward the end of my session with Alice, she was telling me about certain of her son's idiosyncracies, what might be called his "obsessions." Now obsession is an interesting word. My dictionary defines it as "a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling." The "often unreasonable" part is where it can get dangerous, since the term obsession has become such an accepted part of psychiatric diagnostic lingo; "unreasonable" is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder; it is also, like "mental illness," in the eye of the controller. Setting aside these very relevant concerns, let's just say for now that obsessions are persistent idiosyncracies that don't appear to accomplish much in the way of ongoing expectations and demands; not very productive, in other words. In this light, obsessions are something to be overcome, to be controlled; they are failures in social adjustment. However, from the point of view of fostering uniqueness, creativity and imagination, this is not the case. Consider the following "necessary nutrient" for evoking imagination recommended by psycholgist and author, James Hillman: "Among the many prerequisites for furthering imagination, I would single out at least these three: first, that the parents or intimate caretakers of a child have a fantasy about the child; second, that there be odd fellows and peculiar ladies within the child's perimeter; and third, that obsessions be given courtesy."14 Hillman's teaching is that these so-called obsessions are often windows to the soul, early expressions of the uniqueness of a child's gifts and purpose in life. That we can only really know any connection between these early idiosyncracies and the journey of the soul in retrospect or hindsight is another good reason to go easy on our judgments and pathologizing of our children's behavior. Alice already honored her son's oddities, but it helped her, as it does all of us, to get some confident acceptance and support from another member of the community.

An Authentic Community

Our society is undergoing a severe crisis of community. Our children are intensely affected by this crisis, deprived in many ways of the need for ongoing availability of support, nurturance and recognition. We can learn by looking at certain tradtional cultures, prior to industrialization, that the community has a solemn task of recognizing, embracing and supporting the unique gifts and talents of each individual member.15 In return for this great gift of recognition, support and valued inclusion, the community gains the lifelong benefit of that individual's contributions. This means that it is our job as adults to look for and recognize the uniqueness of each child who brings the gift of his or her being into our world. It is not our job to mold and conform, but to see, validate and provide opportunity for all of our children to develop and share their unique gifts; it is a tragic loss to the community when even one child is not seen, when even one child's gifts are lost to all of us. Another sacred task of the community is to provide uniquely tailored support for individuals in pain or transition, and for the entire community on important events such as births, funerals and a variety of significant times. These supportive events are called rituals, and bear little resemblance to the emotionally staid "ritualistic" ceremonies we typically see at weddings and funerals in our society. Traditional rituals do have form, but, when properly done, participants are moved by the Spirit and abandon themselves to a cleansing outpouring of feeling. Rituals are a community experience of emotional healing. Our Western society needs to learn from these traditions, and remember and recreate the experience of community support and healing, both in times of crisis and in ongoing fashion for all of our sakes. Just now, we need help with cleansing the patterns of fear, despair and chronic hopelessness which tell us that the best we can hope for is a society in which literally millions of our children are given toxic drugs to bring them into line.

The Parental Fallacy

It is interesting that Hillman makes a great effort to challenge what he calls the "parental fallacy," the tendency to attribute one's problems, limitations, struggles, and failures to the effects of having been treated a certain way by one's parents. In the so-called mental health field, this "fallacy" is found in the tendency to blame parents, especially mothers, for their children's problems. Part of Alice's anger is at being blamed for Nathan's problems, so my response to his oddities is partly a contradiction to any guilt or blame she might feel about her son. It is also interesting that one of the greatest appeals of biopsychiatry is that, in its own way, it also contradicts the parental fallacy. Family members love support organizations like the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) and Children With Attention Deficit Disorders (CHADD) because they preach the gospel of biologically based "mental illness," thus providing absolution from guilt and responsibility for family members of the "mentally ill patients." I like Hillman because he challenges both the parental fallacy and the beliefs of biopsychiatry. In his book, The Soul's Code, Hillman tells the stories of extraordinary individuals in order to help us think about ourselves and our children as unique, idiosyncratic souls on a journey. Consider these words:

What is already taking place in our "mental health facilities," where drugs dispensed with less shame than condoms, would have benumbed during their childhoods probably everyone of the extraordinary people tod about in this book. The vicious inadequacy of treatment is not intended by practitioners, who mean well. It results, willy nilly, from the inadequacy, or viciousness, of theory.16

Hillman refers to a book by Victor and Mildred Goertzel, called Cradles of Eminence, which reports on the childhoods of 400 famous persons, three-fifths of whom "had serious school problems." A partial list includes Thomas Mann, Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi, Richard Feynman, Rainer Fassbinder, Jackson Pollock, Rovbert Browning, Paul Bowles, Edward Grieg, Stephen Crane, Thomas Edison, Eugene O'Neill, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Albert Einstein, George Patton, and Winston Churchill.

Hillman calls for a much grander vision:

In regard to children and their psychology, I want the scales of habit (and the masked hatred within the habit) to fall from our eyes. I want us to envision that what children go through has to do with finding a place in the world for their specific calling. They are trying to live two lives at once, the one they were born with and the one of the place and among the people they were born into.17

Though parents obviously bear a great responsibility for, and wield great influence on our children, we are not to blame for their drives and inclinations. Nor is biology and genetics, however forceful it is as a factor in temperament, learning styles, and many other variables, the primary determinant. The beliefs of biopsychiatry are an especially faulty and dangerous pseudoscientific simplification and misunderstanding of what little science actually has revealed about biology and genetics. Hillman's point is that we are much too stuck in the old "nature vs. nurture" debate; that the individual soul may well be a primary determinant of both nature and nurture. At any rate, the way out of our tragic dilemma is not the way of guilt, blame and shame; nor is it the easy way of drugging our children and justifying it by false science. It is partly about embracing a grand, noble, and uplifting image of human life as sacred and purposeful. On a more mundane level, I would say it is about play and about patience.

Play and Patience

Let me first address the issue of patience, a quality often undervalued in today's world, but of crucial importance to our care of young people. Here is a great paragraph from Hillman:

Dyslexia, chronic lateness, distractibility, hyperactivity make up "attention deficit disorder" -- and what patience it demands. Yet how else contain and tease out what this "deficit" also shows? Children so categorized are often those with above average intelligence, given to daydreams, and with such widely open sensitive souls that their "ego" behavior is noncompliant and disorganized. Ritalin, Prozac, Xanax -- of course, they work. But because they work against the deficit does not confirm the cause of it or disclose its meaning. Crutches work, but they can't account for your broken leg. Why is this disorder so prevalent today? What does the soul not want to attend to, and what might the daimon (soul) be doing when it is not reading, not speaking, and not fulfilling performance expectations? To discover this takes patience, and that imaginative perception that Henry James described as "a prolonged hovering over the case exposed."18

The clear teaching is that we must slow down and really be with our children, not on our terms but on theirs. A teacher of mine, Dan Jones, shared with me his observation that 90% of the times when we punish our children are when we are feeling time pressure, when we're in a hurry to get to work or to school, or to bed, or whatever. Observe this for yourself and see if it does not hold true in your own experience. A practical tip I give to parents is to distrust the thinking of anyone who comes at you with a sense of great urgency or pressure about your child. It may be their task and great challenge to make it through this day, or this week, or this year, but their urgency is mostly their distress -- and besides, you're in it for the long haul with your child. Getting through today is important, but way more important is the long-term interest of your child, and the development of his body and his character, and the quality of his relationships with himself and you and others that he will carry forth into the world when he leaves your home.

One aspect of this, from a different angle, is related to a corollary principle I learned from Arny Mindell. It is that unfair or unaware use of rank causes revenge. Simple, but oh so true at any level. There are many factors which contribute, for example, to the escalating rates of violence among our youth, not the least of which is the clear and consistent link between the use of psychiatric drugs and youth violence.19 The link we are emphasizing just now is more general; it is that when we adults treat our young people disrespectfully and use our power without great awareness, they are hurt, and on a deep level, they want revenge. A related truth with profound implications is that it is more important for a young person to resist control than it is to have things work well in his or her life.

Put Dan Jones' observation about the fact that we punish when we are in a hurry together with this idea that unfair use of rank (imposed punishment as opposed to limit setting in a climate of encouragement, goodwill and relaxed positive expectations) causes a desire for revenge. And then consider that we punish because we see a child as bad and deserving of punishment. People like Alice Miller who have studied child abuse in depth, teach us that there really are no "bad" children, only children who have been hurt and are doing the best they can to draw attention to the places they need help in order to get back to their true nature; a nature which tends toward kindness, loving, cooperation, and the creative intelligence to handle life's challenges in a good way. When we see "bad" children, it is because we have a place inside that feels like we are bad, and we project it onto a "bad" child outside of us who deserves the punishment we once suffered ourselves.20 This feeling of being bad, unworthy, deserving of punishment, is called shame. When we carry a load of shame inside, and when things get rough or sloppy, or a mistake is made, our shame is triggered. And so there comes an almost irresistible urge to find someone to blame or shame for the situation. Good will and clear thinking are temporarily lost.

Another teacher, Patricia Sun, has observed that the consistent effect of acting without patience, therefore the true purpose of impatience, is to slow us down. We are not as intelligent, adaptive and creative when we are impatient; things don't go as well, and we end up having to spend more time on the problem, situation, or people with whom we felt and acted without patience. Isn't that interesting? It rings very true in my own experience with children. The teaching, then, is that we must consciously embrace the need to slow down and take time with ourselves, the situation and our children. This requires doing the work of healing our shame. When we are out of our loving with our children, usually shanghaied by shame, and its close cousins of righteous anger or chronic hopelessness, our psychological state always says more about us than it does about our children, however "bad" their behavior may be. We either grow up and take responsibility for that, or we suppress our children and contribute to the ongoing legacy of shame-based child-rearing.

There are two related attitudes which I believe we must keep reaching for as adult allies to our children. The first is to see our children through the "eyes of delight." The second is to approach them with an attitude of "relaxed confidence" in the goodness of their essential nature.21

These teachings about patience bring us once more, then, to deep reflection on the perspective or cosmology with which we view and experience ourselves, our children and the world. To reside in delight and relaxed confidence requires a benign and uplifting vision of life. There is an ancient teaching of the Jewish mystical tradition, called the Kabbalah, which I want to share with you. According to this tradition, our universe is not the creator's first effort. There were prior worlds founded on the laws of perfect justice, or total karma as they say in the East. Complete justice; for every act a matching effect. The teaching is that these worlds simply could not endure, but imploded upon themselves. Imagine what it would be like if every single judgment, anger, hostility, unkindness that you ever thought, felt or acted out came immediately back upon you. That is perfect justice. So the teaching is that a world based on loving kindness and forgiveness had to be created. Ours is not a world of perfect justice; we have an extraordinary capacity as human beings which is the key to the endurance of our universe and to the transformation and enlightenment of each and all of us. This capacity is the glorious gift of forgiveness. When we forgive, the world is transformed, and karma or justice, especially the vicious cycles of retaliation and revenge, can be transcended. And what is required for forgiveness? There are, of course, many traditions which teach about forgiveness, but certain aspects seem clear. In order to forgive, we must overcome that "irresistible" shame-based urge to blame or shame-- that urge to condemn that I mentioned apove. And we must slow down, and we must call forward great patience. Profound compassion is required in order to go through the pain of conscious healing, and to forgive others and ourselves for the judgments we placed. We must also forgive ourselves for all the inevitable limitations and lapses in our ability to live up to the standards of the supreme and sacred vows we take as caregivers to these beautiful souls who gift our lives with their presence. I learned this Kabbalah teaching from Rabbi David Cooper who says that: "This undertone of continuous forgiveness-patience-is a crucial aspect of this creation."22 In this context, in this imagining of the world, forgiveness of ourselves and others is necessary and fundamental. And in the context of today's world of parenting and the growth of our children, great patience is a priceless virtue.

Alice's boy, Nathan, is an energetic, demanding, spirited youngster who loves to wrestle, bounce on the trampoline, and especially to have the attention of three adults whom he can boss around and show off his strength and prowess. He is fun to play with, though he needs and demands more than we can give in our limited time together. As is so often the case in spending time with children, adults in Nathan's life tend to feel exhausted after much play with him. Most of us adults have lost the ability to play hard with children and enjoy it for very long. We've been hurt around play, and we've become serious grownups; we basically have a lot of distress about playing. Children's zest and vitality tends to be hard for us to tolerate. We feel like "it's too much," and we need for them to "tone it down." When great zest is also laced with many other needs, as it always is in children, and especially when there is an edge of emotional distress that looks like, say, whininess or aggression, then we adults really have a hard time.

This brings me to two final pieces of information that I want to leave you with. One is that a core of psychiatric oppression is about suppression of emotional discharge, or the release of distress by emotional expression. Psychiatric drugs are suppressive; they are a sometimes partially effective means for shutting down or inhibiting untidy or unruly desire and emotion. To best help our children, I think we need to understand and fully allow, support and encourage our children's need to express their feelings in order to regain their essential intelligence and goodness from distresses caused by inevitable hurts they have suffered. Secondly, I want to emphasize the related truth that a big part of our difficulty as adults with play has to do with how we've been hurt; we usually need to work through a lot of feelings to really be able to let go and enjoy playing. I refer the reader to my book, The Wildest Colts Make The Best Horses, or to the teachings of the Re-evaluation Counseling Communities,23 for excellent information on the process of emotional healing. Here is what I say in my book:

Much of the suppression we do to our children is not in response to the hurts they show us; the greater part (and this definitely includes the drugging of our children) is our pathetic attempt to control, slow down, rein in their dynamic aliveness!

So, finally, the challenge is not simply to develop this great forebearance of virtuous patience; it is to reclaim our own aliveness, our zest, our vitality. In order to fully enjoy our children, we need to enjoy our lives, and we need to learn or re-learn how to play. That can be a work requiring loads of patience, forgiveness, good humor, and lots of support. But what genuine alternative is there for such wondrous beings as our children and ourselves?


  1. This and the next two excerpts are from "A Nation of Kids On Ritalin," an essay Dr. Diller has posted on his excellent website,
  2. See my book, The Wildest Colts Make The Best Horses (Bright Books, 1996), or my website,, for more discussion of these ideas.
  3. See the website,, of neurologist Fred Baughman, MD, for information on the ADHD fraud.
  4. See Peter Breggin's book, Toxic Psychiatry (New York: St. MartinÕs Press, 1991); also see the new journal, Ethical Human Sciences and Services.
  5. James Baldwin. Nicki Giovanni conversation, 4 November 1971, A Dialogue, 1973. Cited in L. R. Frank (ed.), Random House Webster's Quotationary. New York: Random House, 1998.
  6. See Peter Breggin's Talking Back To Ritalin. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1998.
  7. Eberstadt, M. "Why Ritalin Rules." Policy Review, 1999, No, 94, pp. 24-44.
  8. Arianna Huffington (Chicago Sun Times, 6/17/98) reports a 400% increse in the number of children on Prozac in just one year, 1995 to 1996. She reports that 735,00 children ages 6-18 were on Prozac and related anti-depressants in 1996, up 80% since 1994. Bruce Wiseman ("The Creation of Senseless Violence: Psychiatric Drugs and Kids Who Kill," CCHR, 1998, posted on my website), reports the number as 909,000.
  9. Abraham Lincoln. Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Peoria (Illinois), 16 October 1854. Cited in L. R. Frank (ed.), Random House WebsterÕs Quotationary. New York: Random House, 1998.
  10. Estimates of school-age children in the United States vary widely; however, four to five million is probably a conservative estimate. See Breggin's Talking Back To Prozac or Fred Baughman's website, both cited above.
  11. While methylphenidate prescriptions have leveled off since 1996, increase in prescriptions for other amphetamines has more than made up the differnce, allowing for continued growth in the overall numbers of children on stimulant drugs. Data from "Diversion, Traficking, and Abuse of Methylphenidate," a 1998 report by Gretchen Fuessner of the U.S Drug Enforcement Administration. (See also footnote 8 above.)
  12. Abraham Joshua Heschel. I Asked For Wonder. Samuel H Dresner (ed.), New York: Crossroad, 1997, p. 98.
  13. Ibid., p. 39.
  14. Hillman, J. The Soul's Code. New York: Random House, 1996, p. 160.
  15. See Malidoma Some, The Healing Wisdom Of Africa: Finding Life Purpose Through Nature, Ritual And Community. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1998.
  16. Hillman, J. (See above), p. 30.
  17. Ibid., p. 13.
  18. Ibid., p. 126.
  19. See Bruce Wiseman's article, "The Creation of Senseless Violence: Psychiatric Drugs and Kids Who Kill," posted on my website,
  20. Miller, A. Banished Knowledge. Doubleday, 1990.
  21. See my book, The Wildest Colts Make The Best Horses, for a discussion of the importance of these qualities.
  22. Rabbi David Cooper. "The Holy Chariot." Audiotape series published by Sounds True, Boulder, Colorado.
  23. The Re-evaluation Counseling Communities, P.O Box 2081, Main Office Station, Seattle, WA 98111. Phone: 206/284-0311.