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Dr. Harold Koplewicz Discusses Mental Health Stigma


"Close to 150 professionals and family members heard noted author and speaker, Dr. Harold Koplewicz tell guests at the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) that "DNA roulette was the most deciding factor" in a difficult child’s behavior.

Beginning with a demonstration of the differences in personality traits, strengths and weaknesses among his three young sons, Dr. Koplewicz led attendees through a short review of the role that genetics play in forming an individual’s physical attributes and temperament. Using examples of various family characteristics, he explained that each child’s brain is wired differently and that this is attributable to the genetic coding present in his or her parents’ DNA. With well-developed, sometimes strikingly familiar portrayals of youngsters with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and severe depression, Dr. Koplewicz provided a series of case studies of patients from three to 23, with whom he had worked during the past 20 years.

People who wouldn’t dream of blaming parents for a child’s asthma or diabetes are often quick to blame bad parenting for a child’s hyperactivity, depression, or school phobia, the author noted. The parents, in turn, often blame their children, believing that they’re lazy or rebellious. Even worse, the children with these problems often blame themselves, convinced that they’re just bad kids. Children as young as seven-years-old have told Dr. Koplewicz that they are "bad" simply because of the reinforced negative feedback they received from their teachers, caregivers, and peers.

Dr. Koplewicz also spoke about the media’s reinforcement of the "blame game" showing the example of a well-known weekly magazine’s cover story about Ritalin that ran the subtitle "Ritalin: Mother’s little helper." Comparing the chief medication used in the treatment of ADHD to treatments for asthma and childhood diabetes, Dr. Koplewicz asked his audience. "Would this national news magazine have written an article subtitled: ‘Insulin: Mothers little helper,’ or ‘Asthma inhalers: Mothers little helper?’ He thought not. He then challenged his listeners to understand that parents who sought assessment and treatment of their child or adolescent with a brain disorder no longer deserved being heaped with untold misery and guilt because they chose to get a diagnosis and provide their children with well-proven, effective medications and treatment.

Transmitting a strong anti-stigma message to attendees—brain disorders are nobody’s fault—Dr. Koplewicz underscored the messages that treatment works and that professionals who work with families, the media, and other family members should stop "beating up" on parents of children with troubling behaviors. The troubling behaviors of many children often can be correlated with a genetic predisposition to brain disorders. He insisted further that early assessment, intervention, and treatment by an experienced mental health professional would provide these children a chance at a bright future, indeed, like any child with asthma or other childhood illness who receives early identification and treatment.

Dr. Koplewicz, the vice-chairman of the New York University (NYU) Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry, directs the child and adolescent clinical psychiatry service and is professor of clinical psychiatry at NYU."

by Brenda Souto, NAMI Young Family Outreach Coordinator

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