prescriptionIt would be impossible to state whether I am pro- or anti-medication in any generalized way. Whether to take medications or not is a personal choice and one that, no matter what my opinions about systemic issues are, is one that needs to be respected and I do listen and respect that choice when working with people individually. But the way our current medical and psychiatric system operates is beyond f*#@ed. Pardon my language. I do think we all have a responsibility in addressing some of the issues I would like to address.

I am not even sure what taking your meds mindfully would really entail. I guess I am trying to point out the fact that relying on medications vs. developing the skills of mindfulness, self-soothing, and restoring your state of well-being are contradictory to one another. Some professionals encourage both: they may prescribe a medication in order for the patient to get themselves to a state where they are willing and able to at least become motivated to begin making lifestyle changes. More often, the prescribed medications are the stand alone solution offered, along with a diagnosis that is experienced by the patient as a sentence to a life of dysfunction.

On this topic, I tend to think of one youth in particular who was referred to me because of her “anger issues”. As many other youth I work with, she was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). In addition, she had 4 other diagnoses related to her learning difficulties and was on 3 different medications aimed to address her anxiety, behavioral impulsiveness, depression, sleep disorder, and more. What the f? Seriously. Teenagers who see a psychiatrist for feelings of anger and violent tendencies are prescribed anti-psychotics and in some cases the same anti-psychotics that are prescribed for people who are in the late stages of dementia. This young girl I am referring to in particular could rime off her diagnoses and what she had learned from her experience was that she was, in fact, incapable of paying attention, healing herself, and maintaining meaningful social relationships. In a group setting, when we would lose her attention and try to draw her back, she would say “oh sorry, that’s the ADHD”. When her peers would give her feedback that she was not acting appropriately, she would shout out ‘it’s not my fault, I have x, y, z”. I didn’t even know where to start. All I knew was that this was a reflection of a systemic problem that needed some attention. It remains an area of our health care system I am committed to learn more about, challenge, and contribute to. My work often involves teaching people to unlearn some of the ways they have been taught to think about themselves and the world around them. More and more, I rely on practices of teaching mindfulness.

The psychiatrist I consult with at work once said “a learning disability is just another way of saying that a person’s brain doesn’t function in the way our education system has been developed to teach kids what they need to know in order to successfully get into university”. Ken Robinson, in his book The element: how finding your passion changes everything presents a case study of a young girl who was brought to him by her parents when she was 8, wondering about her difficulties focusing in class and whether or not there was something “wrong with her”. After observation, Robinson pointed out to the parents that their 8 year old girl simply loved to dance. He prescribed dance lessons as a way of addressing her inability to focus in class. That same young girl is now the woman who is behind the creation of some of the world’s most famous musical theater productions, including Cats and The Phantom of the Opera.

This is a complex topic and not one that holds any simple solution. I have worked with some kids who I would say do need to be medicated (hopefully, temporarily). Most often, however, I advocate for young people and their families to turn to medications as a very last resort… if at all. When university students are crushing Ritalin and sorting it as a way to stay awake while pulling an all-nighter to cram for an exam, you have to wonder how a 5 year old can be legally prescribed the same drug. A 5 year old medicated child may make the lives of his or her teachers and parents easier, but we are depriving that same child of many opportunities to learn and grow. That’s the age that many of the teenagers and adults I work with began to take medication: at the ripe age of 5.

It’s not just the diagnosis and associated prescriptions that matter, but the way the individual interprets what each of those elements of their care mean about who they are and what their potential is limited to.

Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietmanese Zen monk and world-renown teacher of mindfulness, says “Mindfulness is when you are truly here, mind and body together. It gives birth to joy and happiness. Another source of happiness is concentration. The energy of mindfulness carries within it the energy of concentration.” Everyone has the potential of developing a mindful state of being. The thing is, some people need to move in order to concentrate.