Nowadays, it can sometimes seem almost everyone has a mental health issue or learning disorder. But, are we too quick to label people, or is it that we are more aware of the problems? This article looks at some of the issues surrounding these sensitive questions.
Forty years ago, an unruly, disruptive child was just that and would probably be punished for naughty behaviour. A withdrawn, surly teenager was also seen as best ignored and left to grow out of it.
Today, parents and teachers know that such behaviours may indicate a mental health problem that might need medical intervention. A doctor might give the unruly child a diagnosis of ADHD or the surly teenager with depression. They might receive treatment with psychotherapy or medication.
While we once judged and punished anyone who didn’t fit in with the standards required by society, our increased awareness of mental health has led to a more supportive, compassionate view. This is good. Whatever the origins and nature of challenging behaviours, people need help to cope with their problems.
The question remains: are we too quick to label and apply a medical model to troubled individuals? Labelling, especially the labelling of children and young people, will have repercussions because kids are intuitive and very quick to pick up on things. So there are situations where labelling is appropriate and others where labelling might not be the best solution.
Some children require individualised attention to fulfil their potential in life, both at school and in the home. Labelling allows teachers and parents to identify children with additional needs and provide the resources they require.
Thanks to the labelling mentioned above, teachers and caregivers can develop individual plans to assist these youngsters with their education. One of the most significant positive outcomes of labelling is the provision of extra support where it is required.
With a label or medical diagnosis may come government support and funding to finance the resources needed to help these children.
Finding out what is causing a particular behaviour or personality trait is a positive result of labelling as it promotes more understanding and tolerance from others.
A diagnosis or label allows those with similar experiences to come together in a peer group. Support groups are helpful not only to the individuals concerned but also to their families.
Labelling can also have negative effects:
Labelling sometimes makes youngsters feel they are stupid and will never be able to do well. As a result, they may develop “learned helplessness” and low self-esteem.
Labelling can cause kids to be treated differently and can lead to bullying for being different. Being marginalised amongst classmates and peers because of a label is totally unacceptable, but sadly, it can still happen.
Hearing the same label over and over influences a child’s self-image, whether or not the label is accurate. The child may then have difficulty reconciling the real world with the false label that their family has embedded in their mind.
Labelling youngsters can lead to lowered expectations from their parents and teachers. And if caregivers have low expectations, the child will also expect to fail.
Like bullying, the child might find their classmates making fun of their learning disability. So the child may not make friends easily or not want to go to school.
While children grow and continue to change, it’s hard to shake off labels. Negative reputations tend to be remembered, and this hampers a child’s emotional and mental development.
Positive labels can also present a problem as children can feel under pressure to perform well all the time. For example, if a child is labelled as gifted and talented in an academic subject, they may find that the pressure on them increases as they get older. This pressure may become unbearable, reaching a breaking point in their later life.
Following on from the above, children might not have the capacity to understand that labels are not permanent. If they are continually labelled a certain way, they start believing it. This makes it hard to change the path that has been set for them. For example, a youngster who has been called musical from their early years might start to feel guilty and anxious if they realise that they are not as interested in music as they used to be. They can feel they are failing and losing their sense of purpose.
Labels are very useful as a tool and are essential when an individual requires special support. However, we should never forget that some people may use them as a weapon, and there are some cases where “emphasising normality” may be more helpful than a medical diagnosis.
For both children and adults, it is vital to remember that no one is just a label or diagnosis, and no label is the person. The diagnosis is merely one aspect of the individual. They will have many other qualities and traits in their personality. So parents and teachers should first consider the child as a whole before exploring the ways in which labelling might affect them.
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