Sharp Differences in Strategies for Dealing with Rage

Article excerpt

Once again, teenage boys make the cover of a national newsmagazine for killing their classmates. This time, the focus of the coverage isn't school bullying. It's adolescent rage.

Recent reports about raging videos produced by Columbine High School shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold highlight the importance of schools coming to terms with the anger of students. But there are sharp differences in the strategies parents and schools are being encouraged to take.

Some experts argue that the problem is clinical: Mental illness is a "no-fault" disease of a disordered brain. It is not related to inadequate parenting, abuse, or childhood trauma. And schools should protect themselves from violence by intervening more aggressively to diagnose and medicate it.

Others caution that there's a great danger of overprescribing psychiatric drugs for children, especially boys. They urge addressing the quality of school and home life, especially the influence of a caustic culture that exposes kids to everything from hate Web sites to nihilistic music and videos.

The tack parents and educators take on this issue could dramatically affect how kids are evaluated and counseled in and out of school. It could also influence how students experience the climate of learning in schools.

A White House conference on mental health convened soon after the Littleton, Colo., shootings strongly emphasized medical intervention as a strategy for helping "more than 2 million children" who experts say suffer from depression.

"It's hard to believe that until 20 years ago we still believed that inadequate parenting and bad childhood traumas were the cause of psychiatric illness in children," said Harold Koplewicz, director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the New York University Medical Center. "These are no-fault brain disorders ... they respond to medicine."

Commenting on his remarks "with the tragedy at Littleton in mind," Hillary Rodham Clinton observed that "part of what we've got to do, though, is reflect how we can both identify and get help to children who need it, whether or not they want it or are willing to accept it."

A Dec. 9 report by the surgeon general targets primary care and schools as "major settings for the potential recognition of mental disorders in children and adolescents." Some schools are beginning to screen their students for signs of depression, and a new national program to train schools to "identify troubled children" is expected early next year.

But critics say that parents are jumping too quickly to medicate angry youths, and thereby missing opportunities to connect with kids more effectively. The emphasis on drugs also obscures what could be important social sources of childhood anger. "By locating our children's problems in their supposedly flawed brains rather than in our obviously flawed society, the White House Conference took adults off the proverbial hook, while dangling our children on its point," writes Peter Breggin, director of the International Center for the Study of Psychiatry and Psychology, in a new book, "Reclaiming Our Children: A Healing Plan for a Nation in Crisis" (Perseus Books).

"What we really need to do is improve the quality of parenting and appeal to the ethical spirit of our children," he adds in an interview. "We do just the opposite when we drug. …