Sick children or sick society?

Tuesday 15 October, 6.00pm until 8.00pm, Wolfson Lecture Theatre, Institute of Psychiatry Main Building, 16 De Crespigny Park, London SE5 8AF UK Satellite Events 2013

This event is free and unticketed.


The publication of DSM V has once again re-opened debate over the role of psychiatry in everyday life. That children can now be diagnosed as suffering from Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder – informally regarded as a form of bipolar disorder - has been criticised by many for over-formalising what many regard as extreme tantrums, pointing to the 4000% increase in such diagnoses in the US in the past decade.  Similar loosening of criteria elsewhere – with ‘binge eating’ regarded as over-eating 12 times in three months – has further reinforced fears that the uncertainties and experimentation of childhood is being eroded, even pathologised, by overzealous medicalisation driven by complaint-wary doctors, anxious parents and pharmaceutical company profits.

Yet parents and other medical professionals such diagnoses are essential in helping children suffering from serious disorders receive specialised treatment and that, far from blurring the lines, actually more adequately define what is bad behaviour. For instance, in removing Asperger’s Syndrome – regarded as the ‘prodigy’ disorder - as a separate category, it is hoped that autism diagnoses will become more precise in terms of symptoms rather than tailored towards specific treatments available.  It is argued that concerns regarding overdiagnoses are driven more by stigma surrounding mental illness and pharmacological intervention than solid critique over the accuracy of diagnostic criteria. We must not let our social aversion to psychiatric or medical intervention risk denying sick children the opportunity to receive potentially transformative treatment, it is argued.

Can concerns over the medicalisation of childhood disorders be alleviated by more accurate diagnosis, or are there legitimate grounds that childhood is being pathologised? Is the rise in diagnosis driven more by social anxieties or genuine medical insight into children’s development? Does challenging the stigma around mental health by seeking to normalise certain conditions or disorder risk unhelpfully blurring the lines between genuine illness and eccentric, but healthy, behaviour? Are the medical profession being unfairly blamed or burdened for broader problems across society?

Held in partnership with Maudsley Debates.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen
director, Autism Research Centre, University of Cambridge; author, Zero Degrees of Empathy

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive

Dr Ken McLaughlin
lecturer in social work; author, Surviving Identity: vulnerability and the psychology of recognition

Barbara Sahakian
professor of clinical neuropsychology, MRC/Wellcome Trust Behavioural and Clinical Neurosciences Institute, University of Cambridge

Professor Stephen Scott
head, National Conduct Problems Clinic, Maudsley Hospital, London and King's College London

David Bowden
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer

Produced by
David Bowden associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer
Dr James MacCabe director, Maudsley Debates
Dr Wojtek Wojcik consultant psychiatrist, Royal Edinburgh Hospital; honorary researcher, Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London
Session partners