When children become ill, methods used to treat them should not only seek to heal the illness, but respect the intrinsic dignity and rights of those suffering.</p>
This message lies at the center of “The Child as a Person and as a Patient: Therapeutic Approaches Compared,” a conference currently under way at the Pius X Hall in the Vatican. The aim of the two-day gathering, sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry, is to examine how children in need of psychiatric and medical care can receive the holistic treatment they require. The talks were organized around three key themes: the dignity of the child as a person, the dignity of a child as a patient, and the dignity of the child as seen through the eyes of faith.
Touching upon these three themes in his opening address, Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, president of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry, said that a child, owing to his or her intrinsic dignity as a human person, was deserving of medical treatment that is attentive to the child’s physical, psychological, and spiritual needs.
In the light of faith, he continued, each child is created in the image and likeness of God. “The child in her littleness and simplicity, in her propensity to confidence and trust, is a unique mirror of this image and divine sonship of the human person. For this reason Jesus… pointed to children as example and model between man and God.”
The afternoon sessions featured talks by experts who spoke on psychological and emotional disorders in children and methods of treatments. Speakers offered comparisons between psychotherapy and psychotropic drugs, providing evidence that the long-term use of such drugs is not only ineffective, but can have serious side-effects.
Sharing his perspective on the conference with ZENIT, Dr. Sami Tamimi, a psychiatrist and one of the moderators for the afternoon session, warned against looking at suffering in an overly simplistic way. “Focusing our attention on trying to fix something that we can’t actually find in children’s brain,” he said, “can take us away from a more involved engagement with the sorts of dilemmas that children face in their lives, that leads them to use services like the one that I provide.”
He said it is necessary to know where children are struggling, and to “engage with that struggle in a way that thinks about meanings, and thinks about their broader environment. This is not just because it will help us understand what may have contributed [to the struggle] – and I use that word rather than ’caused’ because we very rarely put our fingers on causes – but also because it gives us greater opportunity to search for other ways in which people might improve their emotional well-being.”
Dr. Tamimi, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist and director of education in the National Health Service in Lincolnshire, UK, said that while he recognizes that the use of psychotropics have their place in the short term, his greatest concern was how they were being globalized. “We are globalizing medications and ways of prescribing that don’t particularly work that well in the west,” he said, “when actually, some of the evidence around is that children in more stable societies in the developing world are actually more content and are happier on average than children growing up in the more developed countries despite – or maybe because of – our extra wealth.”
He also expressed concern about how not only medicine is being exported, but also a value system. “You’re exporting a way of thinking about problems, that might actually distance people from the existing resources.” An example he gave is that of a young person in a developing country who suffers from depression and hyperactivity after his family’s house is destroyed in a flood. In such a case, he said, “I think the money is better spent on providing housing than trying to treat that young person as being depressed or hyperactive.”
“If we go down the route of medicalizing,” he said, “we can sometimes miss the human rights and social dimension to what’s happening.”