Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up

Abigail Shrier (Sentinel, $39.99, 297 pages)

Abigail Shrier was the subject of attempted cancellation after her 2020 book on transgenderism, Irreversible Damage, upset trans activists. Her new book will likewise upset another group of people, although perhaps one less likely to see her silenced: a conglomeration of therapists, school counselors, and parents that have unnecessarily subjected children to therapy. Bad Therapy is a timely book that looks at why despite widespread resources dedicated to youth mental health, the number of children suffering from diagnosed mental illnesses has risen astronomically in recent years, with fully 42 per cent of Gen Z (those born between 1997 and 2012) receiving treatment for a mental illness.

There is a massive “industry” committed to mental illness – psychologists, psychiatrists, counsellors, educators, best-selling authors, government programs, and well-intentioned parents – and yet the mental state of children is getting worse. Shrier explores why.

She says that many young adults and teens are being protected from normal life and losing resilience to hardship. Philip Rieff wrote about “The Triumph of the Therapeutic” in 1966 in which he castigated the tendency to frame all human experience in psychological terms, undermining notions of right and wrong, and human agency. That was nearly six decades ago, and the mindset has resulted in societal expectations and parenting styles that neglect the importance of socializing children; instead, we diagnose them, robbing them of agency: my condition made me do it.

The ever-growing list of labels – “sensory processing issues,” “oppositional defiance disorder,” “social anxiety disorder,” “Attention-Deficit, Hyperactivity Disorder” – are wielded by teens as badges of honour rather than indications of behavioural issues that might require adjustment. Parents oblige them. What Shrier calls the “unceasing attention to feelings” has essentially turned teens and young adults (and those in the so-called “caring” professions of education and medicine) into morally stunted citizens.

Shrier is careful to stress she is not talking about people suffering serious mental illness which often requires both medication and therapy (she’s big on cognitive behavioural therapy which seeks to improve an individual’s handling of adverse situations). Rather, Shrier has aimed Bad Therapy at “the worriers; the fearful; the lonely, lost, and sad.” These are normal human emotions and yet we’ve medicalized them and “shower these kids with meds, therapy, mental health and ‘wellness’ resources, even prophylactically.” And that, precisely is the problem, for as Shrier argues, the explosion of (seemingly bogus) diagnoses coincides with the growing availability of mental health resources suggests that the maladies suffered by young people are iatrogenic – that is, the illness is caused by the cure.

Paradoxically, if we want more resilient children able to tackle the world, we need less concern about the well-being of kids, to let them experience the world as it really is, outside the putative comforts of perfect safety, including protecting them from bad feelings.