The worsening of kids' health - as measured by a doubling over the last decade in chronic childhood illness, so that 1 in 4 chiildren are now stricken - is something we cannot get a grasp on.

 

The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, February 20, 2010. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

Cultural Münchausen Syndrome: Our treatment of children is making them sick

The topic for our sermon this morning is a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showing, in the words of the New York Times :

"Childhood rates of chronic health problems, including obesity, asthma and learning disabilities, have doubled in just 12 years, a new study reports - to 1 in 4 children in 2006, up from 1 in 8 in 1994."

Could there be worse news? As a society, we are guilty of child abuse! We are witnessing cultural Münchausen Syndrome.

Here's the good news:

"But the findings, which appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association, held a welcome surprise, the researchers said: many chronic conditions resolve themselves during childhood."

Why as we got richer and supposedly more knowledgeable about healthy habits (like diet and exercise) and mental health (learning all about ADHD, for instance) have kids been getting sick at twice the rate of only a decade ago? Because (Michelle Obama, listen up) the fundamental causes of chronic sickness are inbred in our society, and will get worse - inactivity, addiction to electronic stimulation, easy eating, lack of social contact and outdoors activity, deepening parental fears, growing childhood dependence, a quickness to identify and treat childhod syndromes.

(There are actually two separate, simultaneous health crises in the United States - one in impoverished inner city and rural areas, where neglect is real, the other in prosperous - or formerly so - bourgeois neighborhoods, where overprotection is the rule.)

And we haven't even gotten into the psychiatric illness (and medication) epidemic in America! Our standard approach to problems of all sorts is to slap a label on kids and to "treat" them.

You might think that if a cultural approach to a problem failed as miserably - doubling its incidence - as did ours towards childhood health, we'd throw what we're doing into the bonfire and start anew. But we can't. Human beings only know their own cultural templates - how we live in America, how we think about problems, how we strive to solve them are taken as God-given. We just strive harder to do more of what we think will help, but has actually hurt.

How about a quote from Einstein here: "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

Most kids would do better with less of our attention. How do I know? Because I read the New York Times and Journal of the American Medical Association. I remember when my daughter had a petition signed by the kids in third grade to reinstate recess, which was halted (a) because kids might fall and get hurt, (b) they needed time for a computer lab class. I'll never forget the principal's look of pity and condescension.

But kids are people too. And they, to a modest degree, right their own wrongs when given time and space to do so.

That's before we get a hold of them to diagnose, treat (meaning medicate), cloister, and shelter them.

I hate to say that kids would do better if we had no childhood public health system (which ISN'T true for Appalachia, New Orleans, and Haiti). But if kids simply went outside to play ball at recess, lunch and after school, then. . . .

Mike Huckabee interviewed Michelle Obama on her childhood obesity campaign. Huckabee described the problem this way: If you're a middle-aged adult, go back and look at your third-grade class picture. Then go into a third-grade class today, and look around. No one will need to convince you that we have a problem.

And nothing Michelle Obama can do - as well-meaning, influential, and talented as she is - will change that fundamental direction in our society - short of having every family in America with young kids move into her house.

P.S. I need a helpful reader to write in, "You are so wrong, Dr. Peele - The only reason we are detecting these problems is because we have become so much wiser and aware of the infinite ways kids can go wrong so that we are catching and treating their essential sickness earlier and earlier - pretty soon we will have every kid in therapy from birth - thank God!"

P.S. Here's my crazy idea - the coming economic ice age - where Americans will experience a sizable decrease in their standard of living - will produce an improvement in childhood health. That and extending basic health care - you know the kind, treating infections and broken bones, dental care - to everyone in America. But the first development will rule out the latter.