Thursday, November 04, 2021

Are Anxiety And Depression Natural Adaptive Responses To Adversity?



There is little in human history that compares to what we expect of school children today. The nearest precident was child labor during the early Industrial Revolution. Even during that era when children were routinely employed as cheap labor, as dangerous and prone to abuse as it was, the kids were allowed plenty of physical movement, many spent their days outdoors, and at the end of the day, no matter how taxing the work, they knew they were meaningfully contributing to their families. Our schools, while less physically hazardous, restrict children to spending most of their days indoors, seated, silent, doing work that is, at best, expected to payoff decades down the road.

By 1833, Britain began passing laws against child labor, citing it as economically abusive and hazardous to physical health. Today, as schools in the US and elsewhere have been increasingly restricting movement and reducing recess while simultaneously ratcheting up academic pressures, our children, even as young as three, are experiencing levels of anxiety and depression at alarming levels. Studies consistently find that the incidence of anxiety and depression are five to eight times greater today than they were 50 years ago and suicide rates have quadrupled. 

If we were talking about physical injuries or illnesses, we would certainly be passing laws against certain school practices, but our society's lack of awareness and understanding about mental illness means we instead blame the kids, or their genes, or their parents, instead of looking at the test score coal mines that we call schools. So what we have done is to medicalize these disorders and conditions, which largely means prescribing medications, an approach that has done nothing to curb this pandemic of mental illness we are currently facing. 


Most studies find that the prevalence of mood and anxiety disorders have remained constant over time. From 1990 to 2010, for instance, the global prevalence of major depressive disorder (MDD) remained around 4.4% and for anxiety disorders was 4%. There is little evidence that increased treatment rates reduce suicide rates, and there has been no appreciable decline in cross-national suicide rates, which vary dramatically across countries and regions.

These same researchers also point out that evidence continues to show that so-called antidepressant medicines perform no better than do placebos.

Their suggestion is that perhaps we are mistaken when we approach anxiety, depression, and related conditions as disorders. Increasingly the evidence suggests that these are natural, adaptive, responses to adversity, not chemical imbalances. 

Anxiety is an extreme form of what we usually call worry, which is one of the ways we've evolved to avoid danger. 

Anxiety is characterized by fear or panic, irritability, hyper vigilance, racing heart, loss of sleep, and other symptoms associated with fight or flight responses, which also seem to be functional responses to genuine social and environmental threats . . . These characteristics suggest that these "disorders" . . . might be functional responses to adversity.

So what about depression?

Depression is characterized by persistent sadness, low mood, and anhedonia, which, like ordinary sadness and grief, are probably forms of "psychic pain" that adaptively focus attention on adverse events that would have reduced fitness . . . so as to mitigate the current adversity and avoid future such adversities.

Looked at from this perspective -- that anxiety and depression are adaptive responses to adversity rather than diagnosable illnesses to be cured through medical intervention -- our path seems clear. Just as our ancestors recognized that the way to reduce physical injuries and workplace related illnesses in children was to remove children from the places that were harming them, it behooves us to recognize that school, or at least the way we are currently doing school in much of the Western world, is harming our children and either radically reform them or abolish them altogether.

I'm not a biological anthropologist, nor am I a doctor. I know that the medical approach has helped many people suffering from mental illness, including members of my own family. I'm aware that I've simplified here and there remain gray areas, but as a play-based early childhood educator who has worked with thousands of young children, I've lost count of how many happy, motivated, "typical" children I've sent off to public schools only to have them diagnosed, drugged, and otherwise medicalized. Something happens between here and there, and the most obvious thing is that they have gone from a lifestyle of self-motivation, curiosity, relationships, and play to one of sitting silently, indoors, being told not only what to do, but what to think. Without question, being confined and shut up indoors all day would make me anxious and depressed.

There is a well-known study about addiction which I wrote about here. In a nutshell, the researchers concluded that addiction is not so much about the individual or the so-called addictive substance, but rather "the cage" in which the lab rat finds itself confined. This new paper makes me think about the cage we call school. It's a metaphor that we, as people who love our children, should at least begin to consider.

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If you're interested in learning more about alternatives to commands, punishments, and rewards; if you're interested in speaking more respectfully and lovingly to young children, please consider registering for my e-course The Technology of Speaking With Children So They Can Think. Please consider joining this last cohort of the year, examining how the language we use with children creates reality. In this limited registration course we will explore how the way we speak with children creates an environment in which cooperation and peacefulness are the norm, where children take the initiative, solve their own problems, and, most importantly, think for themselves. Click here for more information and to register.

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