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
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. …