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02 October 2006 by Zac Goldsmith for The Ecologist
British ChildrenAccording to Rachel Ragg, one in ten British children has been diagnosed with a serious mental health problem. Last year alone, more than a third of a million of this country’s young were put on Ritalin to treat ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).
The statistics are hugely worrying. But so too is the response of the medical establishment, which all too often involves reaching for pills without seeking to understand the cause of the problem. There is almost a built-in acceptance of these problems, an assumption that they are inevitable, unavoidable.
But if the number of children being diagnosed with behavioural problems is increasing rapidly, something is causing that increase, and surely our first priority should be working out what it is. The trouble with that approach, however, and no doubt the reason it hasn’t been pursued, is that it would throw up a whole range of challenging questions. We’d be forced, by any honest investigation, to question not only the food we feed our children but also the world we’ve created for them.
We would undoubtedly discover, for instance, that the modern diet is at least partially to blame for increased unruliness. We know that sugar alone can cause all kinds of psychological disorders. That was established decades ago, when an American doctor eliminated sugar and additives from the diet of 8,000 young delinquents in New York remand homes, and recorded an immediate 47 per cent drop in the incidence of anti-social behaviour. Diet is key – and thanks in no small part to celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s hugely successful television campaign to improve the quality of school food, progress is at last being made on the issue. But more important even than the food they eat, is the environment that we’ve created for children.
A holistic and rigorous investigation into ADHD might well reveal – as Rachel Ragg suggests – that the actual condition, the real problem for so many of those misdiagnosed children, isn’t ADHD or any other behavioural irregularity. It is childhood itself.
We’ve managed to create a society where childhood and all the things that go with it are an inconvenience. Children are naturally inquisitive, impatient, noisy, adventurous, boisterous and so on. They were never designed to be caged, insulated not only from the natural world but even from each other.
Yet in just 20 years, according to the Department of Transport, the number of children allowed by their parents to walk to school has dropped from 80 per cent to nine per cent. When they reach their school, they are likely to find that their playing fields have been replaced by housing developments. And when they return home, they will spend an average of 13.9 hours in front of their televisions, and six in front of their computers, each week.
At the back of the magazine, John Papworth refuses to sanction the phrase ‘youth problem’, preferring instead to blame adults. He’s right. Today’s children have more toys and more gimmicks, and enjoy greater material wealth than their predecessors. But they are not thriving. And while it’s not hard to understand why the medical establishment has chosen to pursue the path of least resistance – the application of ‘miracle’ drugs – the real solution involves allowing children simply to be children.