Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan is one of the world’s leading experts in child development. In a SPIEGEL interview, he offers a scathing critique of the mental-health establishment and pharmaceutical companies, accusing them of incorrectly classifying millions as mentally ill out of self-interest and greed.
Jerome Kagan can look back on a brilliant career as a researcher in psychology. Still, when he contemplates his field today, he is overcome with melancholy and unease. He compares it with a wonderful antique wooden chest: Once, as a student, he had taken it upon himself to restore the chest with his colleagues.
He took one of its drawers home himself and spent his entire professional life whittling, shaping and sanding it. Finally, he wanted to return the drawer to the chest, only to realize that the piece of furniture had rotted in the meantime.
If anyone has the professional expertise and moral authority to compare psychology to a rotten piece of furniture, it is Kagan. A ranking of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century published by a group of US academics in 2002 put Kagan in 22nd place, even above Carl Jung (23rd), the founder of analytical psychology, and Ivan Pavlov (24th), who discovered the reflex bearing his name.
Kagan has been studying developmental psychology at Harvard University for his entire professional career. He has spent decades observing how babies and small children grow, measuring them, testing their reactions and, later, once they’ve learned to speak, questioning them over and over again. For him, the major questions are: How does personality emerge? What traits are we born with, and which ones develop over time? What determines whether someone will be happy or mentally ill over the course of his or her life?
In his research, Kagan has determined that how we are shaped in our early childhood is not as irreversible as has long been assumed. He says that even children who suffer from massive privations in the first months of life can develop normally as long as they are later raised in a more favorable environment. Likewise, he has studied how people become human in a certain programmatic way in the second year of life: Their vocabulary suddenly grows in leaps and bounds, and they develop a sense of empathy, a moral sensibility and an awareness of the self.
But Kagan’s most significant contribution to developmental research has come through his examination of innate temperaments. As early as four months old, he has found, some 20 percent of all babies already have skittish reactions to new situations, objects and individuals. He calls these babies „high reactives“ and says they tend to develop into anxious children and adults. Forty percent of babies, or what he calls the „low reactives,“ behave in the opposite manner: They are relaxed, easy to care for and curious. In later life, they are also not so easily ruffled.
Kagan could have reacted to his finding in a „low-reactive“ way by kicking back and letting subsequent generations of researchers marvel at his findings. Instead, he has attacked his own profession in his recently published book „Psychology’s Ghost: The Crisis in the Profession and the Way Back.“ In it, he warns that this crisis has had disastrous consequences for millions of people who have been incorrectly diagnosed as suffering from mental illness.
SPIEGEL: Professor Kagan, you’ve been studying the development of children for more than 50 years. During this period, has their mental health gotten better or worse?
Kagan: Let’s say it has changed. Particularly in poorer families, among immigrants and minorities, mental health issues have increased. Objectively speaking, adolescents in these groups have more opportunities today than they did 50 years ago, but they are still anxious and frustrated because inequality in society has increased. The number of diagnosed cases of attention-deficit disorders and depression has increased among the poor…
SPIEGEL: … you could also say skyrocketed. In the 1960s, mental disorders were virtually unknown among children. Today, official sources claim that one child in eight in the United States is mentally ill.
Kagan: That’s true, but it is primarily due to fuzzy diagnostic practices. Let’s go back 50 years. We have a 7-year-old child who is bored in school and disrupts classes. Back then, he was called lazy. Today, he is said to suffer from ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). That’s why the numbers have soared.
SPIEGEL: Experts speak of 5.4 million American children who display the symptoms typical of ADHD. Are you saying that this mental disorder is just an invention?
Kagan: That’s correct; it is an invention. Every child who’s not doing well in school is sent to see a pediatrician, and the pediatrician says: „It’s ADHD; here’s Ritalin.“ In fact, 90 percent of these 5.4 million kids don’t have an abnormal dopamine metabolism. The problem is, if a drug is available to doctors, they’ll make the corresponding diagnosis.
SPIEGEL: So the alleged health crisis among children is actually nothing but a bugaboo?
Kagan: We could get philosophical and ask ourselves: „What does mental illness mean?“ If you do interviews with children and adolescents aged 12 to 19, then 40 percent can be categorized as anxious or depressed. But if you take a closer look and ask how many of them are seriously impaired by this, the number shrinks to 8 percent. Describing every child who is depressed or anxious as being mentally ill is ridiculous. Adolescents are anxious, that’s normal. They don’t know what college to go to. Their boyfriend or girlfriend just stood them up. Being sad or anxious is just as much a part of life as anger or sexual frustration.
SPIEGEL: What does it mean if millions of American children are wrongly being declared mentally ill?
Kagan: Well, most of all, it means more money for the pharmaceutical industry and more money for psychiatrists and people doing research.
SPIEGEL: And what does it mean for the children concerned?
Kagan: For them, it is a sign that something is wrong with them — and that can be debilitating. I’m not the only psychologist to say this. But we’re up against an enormously powerful alliance: pharmaceutical companies that are making billions, and a profession that is self-interested.
SPIEGEL: You once wrote that you yourself often suffered from inner restlessness as a child. If you were born again in the present era, would you belong to the 13 percent of all children who are said to be mentally ill?
Kagan: Probably. When I was five, I started stuttering. But my mother said: „There’s nothing wrong with you. Your mind is working faster than your tongue.“ And I thought: „Gee, that’s great, I’m only stuttering because I’m so smart.“
SPIEGEL: In addition to ADHD, a second epidemic is rampant among children: depression. In 1987, one in 400 American adolescents was treated with anti-depressants; by 2002, it was already one on 40. Starting at what age is it possible to speak of depression in children?
Kagan: That’s not an easy question to answer. In adults, depression either implies a serious loss, a sense of guilt or a feeling that you are unable to achieve a goal that you really wanted to reach. Infants are obviously not yet capable of these emotions. But, after the age of three or four, a child can develop something like a feeling of guilt, and if it loses its mother at that age, it will be sad for a while. So, from then on, mild depression can occur. But the feeling of not being able to achieve a vital goal in life and seeing no alternative only starts becoming important from puberty on. And that is also the age at which the incidence of depression increases dramatically.
SPIEGEL: The fact is that younger children are also increasingly being treated with antidepressants.
Kagan: Yes, simply because the pills are available.
SPIEGEL: So would you completely abolish the diagnosis of depression among children?
Kagan: No, I wouldn’t go as far as that. But if a mother sees a doctor with her young daughter and says the girl used to be much more cheerful, the doctor should first of all find out what the problem is. He should see the girl on her own, perhaps carry out a few tests before prescribing drugs (and) certainly order an EEG. From studies, we know that people with greater activity in the right frontal lobe respond poorly to antidepressants.
SPIEGEL: Should one just wait to see whether depression will go away by itself?
Kagan: That depends on the circumstances. Take my own case: About 35 years ago, I was working on a book summarizing a major research project. I wanted to say something truly important, but I wasn’t being very successful. So I went into a textbook-type depression. I was unable to sleep, and I met all the other clinical criteria, too. But I knew what the cause was, so I didn’t see a psychiatrist. And what do you know? Six months later, the depression had gone.
SPIEGEL: In a case like that, does it even make sense to speak of mental illness?
Kagan: Psychiatrists would say I was mentally ill. But what had happened? I had set myself a standard that was too high and failed to meet that standard. So I did what most people would do in this situation: I went into a depression for a while. Most depressions like that blow over. But there are also people with a genetic vulnerability to depression in whom the symptoms do not pass by themselves. These people are chronically depressed; they are mentally ill. So it is important to look not just at the symptoms, but also at the causes. Psychiatry is the only medical profession in which the illnesses are only based on symptoms …
SPIEGEL: … and it seems to discover more and more new disorders in the process. Bipolar disorders, for example, virtually never used to occur among children. Today, almost a million Americans under the age of 19 are said to suffer from it.
Kagan: We seem to have passed the cusp of that wave. A group of doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital just started calling kids who had temper tantrums bipolar. They shouldn’t have done that. But the drug companies loved it because drugs against bipolar disorders are expensive. That’s how the trend was started. It’s a little like in the 15th century, when people started thinking someone could be possessed by the devil or hexed by a witch.
SPIEGEL: Are you comparing modern psychiatry to fighting witches‘ hexes in the Middle Ages?
Kagan: Doctors are making mistakes all the time — despite their best intentions. They are not evil; they are fallible. Take Egas Moniz, who cut the frontal lobes of schizophrenics because he thought that would cure them …
SPIEGEL: … and received a Nobel Prize for it in 1949.
Kagan: Yes, indeed. Within a few years, thousands of schizophrenics had their frontal lobes cut — until it turned out that it was a terrible mistake. If you think of all the people who had their frontal lobes cut, being called bipolar is comparatively harmless.
SPIEGEL: It’s not entirely harmless either, though. After all, children with this diagnosis are being subjected to a systematic change in their brain chemistry through psychoactive substances.
Kagan: I share your unhappiness. But that is the history of humanity: Those in authority believe they’re doing the right thing, and they harm those who have no power.
SPIEGEL: That sounds very cynical. Are there any alternatives to giving psychoactive drugs to children with behavioral abnormalities?
Kagan: Certainly. Tutoring, for example. Who’s being diagnosed with ADHD? Children who aren’t doing well in school. It never happens to children who are doing well in school. So what about tutoring instead of pills?
SPIEGEL: Listening to you, one might get the impression that mental illnesses are simply an invention of the pharmaceutical industry.
Kagan: No, that would be a crazy assertion. Of course there are people who suffer from schizophrenia, who hear their great-grandfather’s voice, for example, or who believe the Russians are shooting laser beams into their eyes. These are mentally ill people who need help. A person who buys two cars in a single day and the next day is unable to get out of bed has a bipolar disorder. And someone who cannot eat a bite in a restaurant because strangers could be watching them has a social phobia. There are people who, either for prenatal or inherited reasons, have serious vulnerabilities in their central nervous system that predispose them to schizophrenia, bipolar disease, social anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorders. We should distinguish these people from all the others who are anxious or depressed because of poverty, rejection, loss or failure. The symptoms may look similar, but the causes are completely different.
SPIEGEL: But how are you going to distinguish between them in a concrete case?
Kagan: Psychiatrists should begin to make diagnoses the way other doctors do: They should ask what the causes are.
SPIEGEL: The problems you describe are not new. Why do you believe psychiatry is in a crisis at this specific time?
Kagan: It’s a matter of the degree. Epidemiological studies are saying that one person in four is mentally ill. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta recently announced that one in 88 American children has autism. That’s absurd. It means that psychiatrists are calling any child who is socially awkward autistic. If you claim that anyone who can’t walk a mile in 10 minutes has a serious locomotor disability, then you will trigger an epidemic of serious locomotor disabilities among older people. It may sound funny, but that’s exactly what’s going on in psychiatry today.
SPIEGEL: Do you sometimes feel ashamed of belonging to a profession that you think wrongly declares large parts of society to be mentally ill?
Kagan: I feel sad, not ashamed … but maybe a little ashamed, too.
SPIEGEL: Over 60 years ago, when you decided to become a psychologist, you wanted „to improve social conditions so that fewer people might experience the shame of school failure … and the psychic pain of depression,“ as you once put it. How far did you get?
Kagan: Not very far, unfortunately, because I had the wrong idea. I thought family circumstances were crucial to being successful in life. I thought that, if we could help parents do a better job, we could solve all these problems. That’s why I chose to be a child psychologist. I didn’t recognize the bigger forces: culture, social standing, but also neurobiology. I really thought that everything was decided in the family, and that biology was irrelevant.
SPIEGEL: Over time, you’ve come to realize that the bond between a mother and her child is not so important after all.
Kagan: That’s right, though one must remember that the mother’s role was not emphasized until quite recently. Sixteenth-century commentators even wrote that mothers were not suited to looking after children: too emotional, overprotective. But when the bourgeoisie increased in the 19th century, women didn’t have to go out and work anymore. They had a lot of time on their hands. So society gave them an assignment and said: „You are now the sculptress of this child.“ At the same time, middle-class children didn’t have to contribute to their family the way peasants‘ children did. They were not needed and therefore ran the risk of feeling worthless. But when a child doesn’t feel needed, it needs another sign. So love suddenly became important. And who gives love? Women. Eventually, John Bowlby came along and romanticized maternal attachment.
SPIEGEL: Bowlby, the British psychiatrist, was one of the fathers of attachment theory. Do you consider his hypotheses to be wrong?
Kagan: People wanted simple answers, and they longed for a gentler conception of humanity, especially after the horrors of World War II. This fit the idea that only children who are able to trust their mothers from birth are able to lead a happy life.
SPIEGEL: Anxieties over whether raising children in day care centers could harm them persist to this day.
Kagan: Unfortunately, even though we already disproved this in the 1970s. Nixon was president at the time, and Congress was toying with the idea of national day care centers. Along with two colleagues, I got a big grant to study the effect of day care on a group of infants. The children in the control group were looked after at home by their mothers. At the end of 30 months, we found that there was no difference between the two groups. Nonetheless, to this day, 40 years later, people are still claiming that day care centers are bad for children. In 2012.
SPIEGEL: Professor Kagan, we thank you for this conversation.
Interview conducted by Johann Grolle and Samiha Shafy