Friday, November 9, 2012

Social Environment Affecting Diagnosis and How a Person is Treated

I have been thinking a lot lately on the effect of the social environment on diagnosis, the meaning attributed to the issues, and how a person with a condition is treated. I have been seeing the effect of this in the homeschool community, and reflecting on my own experiences as well as my experiences working in mental health.

I recently met a homeschooler who told me that both of her children had been diagnosed with Aspergers when they were younger, and now they no longer had the diagnosis. I met her daughter who was a little quirky, incredibly smart, and very friendly.

I started to wonder if the reason her homeschooled children no longer have a diagnosis is that their social environment now supports them they way they are. They are able to meet the expectations in their given environment.

I have met a lot of people who homeschool because their children did not fit in well at school. Some of these children have diagnoses, but it is really amazing how many times I have heard homeschooling parents tell me that their child does not have a diagnosis, but likely would have been diagnosed with Aspergers or ADHD if he or she were in the school system.

However, what is a problem in a classroom is not necessarily a problem at home and in the community. My little guy who has a horrible time with classes is an awesome homeschooler. He has friends, is caring and considerate, and is able to fit in well in the community.

I wonder how many of these homeschooled children would have been given medication to help them to fit into the social environment of school. Yet most of these kids seem to turn out OK. In the work world, there are many jobs where characteristics of Aspergers and ADHD can be helpful.

I grew up in Pinawa. It is a town that was created for the people who worked at a nuclear research facility. Let's face it - a town of nuclear researchers has more than its fair share of people with Aspergers. Interestingly, many of the characteristics of Aspergers were valued in that environment.

All this made me think of how mental illness can be interpreted differently in different social environments.

I once worked with a man from a Hutterite colony who had schizophrenia. He had not sought treatment, but ended up in the system because of breaking the law. In his social environment, his illness was not something to seek treatment for. Instead, the colony had found an appropriate job for him to do. It did not matter to them if he was talking to himself while doing manual labour. Instead, he was valued for his labour.

In some cultures, people with schizophrenia are considered to be in communication with or possessed by spirits. This puts a totally different spin and meaning on the person's experiences, and also completely changes how a person with schizophrenia is treated.

People usually receive a diagnosis only when there is a poor fit between the person and their environment. The same behaviours in different settings can have completely different meanings. Our social environment can be so important to how we end up feeling about ourselves, and to how others respond to us.

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