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Archive for Monday, June 3, 2013

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Double Take: Teacher criticizes teens’ use of depression meds

June 3, 2013

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Dear Dr. Wes & Katie: Last semester my teacher constantly complained about “all the kids that are on depression medicine now” and how it’s “just like ‘Brave New World.’”

The class is about current issues and we’re supposed to discuss things like this, except I don’t say anything because I’m on those medicines and I find what she says offensive and degrading. She does not offer these as opinions, but as facts.

But the “fact” is that I am not the only one on meds in that class or in the world. Can you tell teachers to be more careful what they say about these sensitive matters?

Katie: As a fan of “Brave New World,” your teacher should also appreciate Aldous Huxley’s concern about the vulnerability of young minds. The residents of the novel’s dystopian society take Soma (a happiness-inducing drug) largely because the state sleep-teaches children about its benefits until they cannot imagine any other viewpoint.

What’s the difference between Huxley’s captive audiences of sleeping children and our own classrooms of sometimes-sleeping students? Our educational system is supposed to encourage us to think independently.

A current-issues class sounds like the ultimate opportunity to practice critical thought — but if teachers aren’t careful to protect all opinions, particularly in touchy matters like mental health and religion, the classroom can easily turn into a modern version of the Spanish Inquisition.

Unfortunately, the squiggly line between teaching and moralizing is often hard to discern. Teachers are charged with educating students to become responsible, intelligent adults, and yet they’re also told to keep their personal biases to themselves. But is it biased to express support for LGBT rights? Is a teacher allowed to criticize abstinence-based sex education? Will a joke about a politician draw a phone call from an angry parent? Different teachers will give different answers to those questions.

While few would purposefully make students feel uncomfortable in a classroom, teachers — like all people — don’t always realize they’ve said something offensive. Perhaps a personal or anonymous complaint from a student would prompt your teacher to correct the situation.

In our ever-evolving society, a positive classroom experience requires all sides to keep an open mind as we all learn how to address the complicated issues of the modern world.

Wes: This was such a troubling story that I didn’t want to believe it. But when contacted, the writer assured me that things were exactly as described, and gave me verbatim examples.

We can debate the wisdom of mass pharmacology all we want. In Double Take we’ve noted that people young and old often reach for medication before making necessary lifestyle changes. We’ve pointed out that, just like “Brave New World,” meds are increasingly tools to manage an unmanageably manic daily life. We’ve complained about stimulant abuse through misdiagnosis. So I’m sympathetic to social critique on that subject.

But I’ve also seen medication change and even save people’s lives. When the FDA black-boxed antidepressants because of a statistically tiny increase in suicidal thoughts among teens in a single study, their use went down and the suicide rate went up slightly. Psychopharmaceuticals are like every other medication, neither good nor bad. Research tells us their best use requires a good dialogue between the client, the therapist and the prescriber.

I presume your teacher is not a doctor or therapist. She is therefore asserting opinions outside her scope of practice and thoughtlessly causing distress for you and any other students who’ve had a brush with these meds.

In a class like this it may be legit for her to foster critical discussion on this timely topic, but what you’re describing here is not a well-reasoned argument — it’s a judgment that unfairly stigmatizes teens suffering from depression and anxiety. I’d be offended too.

If this teacher told your class that a woman’s place is in the home, white folks are a superior race, or Democrats are the only party that hears the true voice of God, telephone calls would flood the school. This sort of commentary is no different.

Now that school is on break, I’d encourage you and your parent to contact the principal and file a calm, rational complaint. You needn’t take a combative tone. Just ask that the teacher be counseled on how to manage sensitive issues like this.

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