Disclaimer: Everything you are about to read is my personal opinion. There is zero science to back this —my— myth of truth.
Despite some concern about my choice of author, I have been thoroughly engrossed in Yuval Noah Harari’s latest book 21 Lessons for the 21 Century. (He is Israeli. I am Muslim, Arab, and half Palestinian. My —and his— critics believe Harari has not taken responsibility nor given a public apology for a. Zionism and b. the creation of the state of Israel. He has not apologized for the ethnic cleansing of my people. He holds an Israeli citizenship. He lives in Israel. I should be boycotting his work. I am not because a. I believe he is one of the top thinkers of our time and b. he intellectually [far better] denounces Zionism, the creation of the state of Israel, and the ethnic cleansing of my people.) He has made me think deeply about our 21 century, our history, the essence of our humanity, and the subject of this post: the myth of truth. One myth in particular has been especially gnawing at me of late: labels and their alarming influence on our youth in particular.
When my brother first got married, he and his wife proudly displayed their respectable university diplomas in their guest bathroom. I cannot tell you the number of times we would hear belly laughs from guests who use their bathroom. My mother used to always joke and call the diploma “the cardboard,” albeit a hideously expensive one. I watch my 18-year-old daughter and her friends these days stress and agonize over university applications and acceptances as though the validation for their very existence depended on this rite of passage. And then I recall a conversation with my non-Israeli top thinker friends who complain about the poor calibre of university graduates applying for work and the desperate need to re-educate “the educated.” I think what I am trying to say is that this cardboard is exactly what it is: a piece of thick paper.
I am a case in point. I am privileged, disciplined, and moderately intellectually capable for a number of reasons including a Palestinian genetic lottery win I may have had no conscious role in inviting into my life. I glued myself in front of a computer screen to study plant-based nutrition (for 6 weeks, I mumble under my breath). I enjoyed every second and learned more than I learned in all my 12 years of schooling and 5 years of undergraduate and graduate study, I must admit. That label is “Whole, Plant-Based Nutrition Graduate,” slightly impressive speak for “more informed than my dog on my recent life-choice.” I learned the history and fundamentals of the ancient science of yoga over a number of weeks [cough], pay my annual membership fee to Yoga Alliance, and continue to personally practice. My label “e-RYT200 and RYT500” and corresponding [Lululemon, Alo, or other] uniform put me in front of a class of humans like me on the path of self-discovery. I am neither a nutritionist nor yoga guru. I am a mortal having a life experience like everyone else, with some expensive cardboard to gain me access to this club or that. I really don’t know very much. “Knowing” coming from a label is a very dangerous path. It can wreck lives.
From where I sit in my life of privilege and intellectual mediocrity, I am noticing a sizeable rise in the number of therapists, counsellors, and life coaches. (Yes, there is a corresponding rise in yoga and meditation teachers and nutritionists too.) I have become acutely aware of the popularity of seeing therapists among pre-teens and teens just in my own community. The days of shaming mental illness are thankfully long gone. Studies I have heard of but not actually read recommend every person to seek therapy. Psychology happens to be one of the more popular fields of study among college kids.
Therapy is really in. It is so in there are counsellors at private schools that kids have access to freely, without parental consent.
Kids younger and younger are familiar with mental health labels I knew nothing about while I was growing up. My youngest tells me she has anxiety disorder. I find it very interesting that her anxiety disorder shows itself right around the time she has PMS or has to study longer than 5 minutes. “Depression” is carelessly used to describe emotional ebbs. Kids grappling with growing pains in the 21 century, with the help of cardboard-armed therapists, are quick to box themselves inside hastily constructed vaults. They grow up attaching themselves to these labels, weaving tale upon tale of wild imaginings to confirm their diagnoses, re-living and cementing an irresponsibly created reality every day of their lives.
Mental illness is devastating. According to Our World in Data, an estimated 275 million people experienced an anxiety disorder in 2016, making it the most prevalent mental health disorder. The problem is exasperated by the fact that this epidemic —like most other— is more detrimental to the poor because of lack of access to support and treatment. Serious mental health issues that require medical intervention are left untreated for the majority of humanity, while my child flops herself on a therapist’s couch complaining of stress, anxiety, body image, and lack of direction and purpose. Her prescription is a life-time of confirmation that she indeed suffers from these ailments that until not long ago were part and parcel of growing up.
I learned recently of a teen struggling with body image and self-confidence. In the affluent school system bursting at the seams with cardboard experts on every topic, this child gains access to counsellors with whom she spends more time than her parents. The rest of the time, the child is watching shows on Netflix ranging from Narcos to narcotics. She is better versed in “anxiety,” “panic attacks,” and “attention deficit disorder” than her multiplication tables. [I am not sure they even learn multiplication tables anymore.] By the time the parents are included in the “therapy,” the tales have been woven and the labels have been tattooed.
Another more serious case that ended up in a suicide attempt involved a pre-teen seeing a counsellor at school, sharing with her questions on gender and identity, without the parents’ knowledge or consent. By the time a psychiatrist got involved to medically diagnose the child, it was found that the counsellor was in fact feeding the child’s confusion for criminal motives.
I have nothing against mental illness or gender orientation. I deal with mental illness very closely, and I am forever grateful to modern medicine for saving our family. A close friend has had gender re-assignment surgery. My point is sometimes we need a thicker cardboard with more experience and science to assign us the labels. Hasty verdicts issued under the auspices of flimsy cardboards are dangerous and careless. And they are messing with our youth. It may be “in” to see a therapist, counsellor, or coach. [I am not really sure what the difference is between them to be totally honest.] My only caution is to watch how much “in” we step. And have a responsible adult along the journey with us to maintain perspective and keep a watchful eye.
Mental illness, personality disorders, and learning disabilities are grave issues that need to be diagnosed medically. My beef is with the entitled fluff of our privileged existence that is quick to latch on to labels and boxes to mask and bypass struggles we are too afraid to look at and address. When a child has behavioural issues, they are most likely a symptom of a problem: in the home, at school, or in the child’s environment. The symptom does not need a label.
Rushed labels become crutches and bypassing tools. Sometimes, maybe most of the time, what our kids need is a dose of reality, a little boundary-setting, and stable adults around them. Almost all the children I know who have emotional and behavioural issues come from unstable homes. It is our responsibility as parents to ensure we are healthy, wholesome, stable, and well. We cannot bluff our way through parenting. 99% of parenting is not what we say but how we live, breathe, and carry ourselves. It is the structure and safe containers we create in the home that can make the biggest influence on our kids as they maneuver growing up and deal with their hormones, emotions, challenges, and tests. Show me a human who doesn’t struggle with anxiety, stress, self-confidence, and even learning disabilities of varying degrees.
One last point: I highly recommend the book. It has no reference to disorders or therapists.