Mental Health: Parents vs. Professionals

by Benjamin Studebaker

In recent days, much has been said of the need to bolster the quality of mental health care in America, given that the recent mass shooters have, for the most part, been victims of mental illness. While such a policy cannot be a substitute for controlling the weapons that, statistically, lead directly to violence, it is nonetheless very much the case that improving our collective mental health would also be helpful, not only in reducing the number of violent incidents, but in improving the quality of life for the millions afflicted with the wide array of mental disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. How might such an improvement begin to be made?

At present, under current law, the state can only compel a child (indeed, any person) displaying symptoms of some kind of mental health problem to see a professional as part of a court order. This means that by the time many of these individuals are getting some kind of professional help, they have already committed a crime and consequently are already displaying serious problems. This is later in the game than it should be–people with mental health problems should be identified earlier. They should receive help long before they commit crimes and become serious concerns to the surrounding community.

This would be a non-issue if all parents listened to their children’s teachers and took them to see professionals, or if all parents heeded the expert advice of the professionals they do encounter. In practise, this is often not the case. The teachers, typically, are the smoke alarms of mental health–they observe when a student is behaving very differently from most other students in ways that seem to be inhibiting the student’s learning (academic, social, motor skills, or otherwise) or the learning of other students. When these teachers point this out to parents and advise them to take action, a rather unhelpful response often comes from the parents, often along the following lines:

  1. My child does not have a problem; you’re just a bad teacher.
  2. Therapy is a racket; they’re just making up disorders to sell pills.

The former response is an emotionally defensive one designed to shield the parent from the possible implication that he or she could have possibly been to blame for creating a child with problems. The latter is akin to the conspiracy theories surrounding vaccination. In both cases the uninformed parent, a non-expert, purports to know more about a given expert’s field than the expert does. In the former, the parent claims to know that there is nothing wrong with the child despite the teacher’s expert knowledge of how students behave and what kind of behaviour is conducive to an effective learning environment. In the latter case, the parent claims to know more about psychiatry than the psychiatrists (and also ignores that many kinds of mental health professionals do not themselves prescribe medication–only psychiatrists do so, to the exclusion of therapists and psychologists). The consequence of both responses is a deadly one, and societal in nature–because the parent refuses to get care for the child, the child’s mental health deteriorates further, and the chance of a tragedy being the result rises. 

Even if the parent follows up and sees a professional in response to the teacher, if the parent does not like the response the professional offers or the various treatments prescribed, the parent can simply ignore the professional advice to the detriment of the child, and the same negative chain of events becomes more likely.

To this point, our society has chosen to put the judgement of the parent ahead of the judgement of teachers and mental health professionals. This amounts to an embrace of the amateur at the expense of the expert. The overwhelming majority of parents do not have degrees in education or psychology. They do not have training to diagnose mental disorders. Just as your average parent would make a lousy pediatrician or medical specialist, your average parent would make a lousy teacher or therapist. Yet, at present, the parent’s judgement is favoured by law up until the point at which a crime has been committed and the damage done. 

This is the first change that needs to be made to our system to improve mental health. All other changes (training more mental health professionals, opening more schools, care homes, and other facilities for the mentally ill, and so on down the line) will not be effective if parents continue to have the authority to block treatment for their children. The parents oppose treatment out of emotionalism–defensive fear of having to question their own parenting, or accusatory ignorance in doubting without evidence the skill of mental health professionals. The professionals examine the child with expert skills acquired over years of training and applied impartially. Sentiment does not get in the way or muddle their thinking. It is they who have the better judgement, not the parents. 

The law should be changed to reflect this. If a teacher says that a student is behaving in a way that suggests a problem, parents should be legally compelled to take their children to see a mental health professional. If the mental health professional advises that action be taken, with the possible exception of recourse to a second opinion from another mental health professional, the parent should be legally compelled to abide by the expert opinion. Should a parent refuse to do so, said parent should lose custody. 

The system, as it presently exists, gives parents too much credit. There is a significant number of very bad parents in this world who are doing a very bad job of raising their children. When these bad parents combine with children in need of special assistance, the results can be catastrophic. There is a great number of parents, far greater than the number of teachers or mental health professionals, and, when it comes to parental rights, parents tend to stick together. They shouldn’t. If you are a parent reading this, I will readily grant you that you are a great parent (after all, all my readers are great people; that’s why they are my readers). I nonetheless put this question to you–which is the more common occurrence, a good parent being told to do the wrong thing by a mental health professional, or a bad a parent defying expert opinion and carrying on with said parenting. I submit to you that, if you can separate yourself intellectually from your own anecdotal experience and look at this issue broadly with a big picture, zoomed out lens, you will agree that the latter is, by far, the more common case.