Louis Theroux Review: Chemical Youth

April 16, 2010 by  
Filed under - Home, Reviews


After recently dealing with the controversial topics of American drug addiction and gang violence, the decidedly softer issue of medicated children could present the ever-brilliant Louis Theroux with one of his toughest challenges yet.

With less contentious material, could the resulting film be as entertaining and revealing?

Spending a lot of time in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Louis is looking at the families who prescribe their children medication to deal with mental disorders such as ADHD, OCD and Asperger’s. As usual, Louis tackles the matter with his own practiced brand of wry smiles, dead-pan delivery and mild-mannered yet cutting questioning.

Indeed, anything with him at the helm is sure to be entertaining. However, I was left feeling short-changed with the summation of his film, which failed to consolidate any of the conclusions he was attempting to press for throughout his investigation.

A lot of his journalistic technique here is designed to make the parents question whether their children need the medication at all. Children are excitable, moody and disruptive – how much of that is temperament rather than a medical problem? It is clearly Louis’ opinion that too many children are on medication that don’t need to be.

One mother gives her child a smorgasbord of drugs to combat a mix of different problems. She also medicates the dog for anxiety. ‘When she’s on it, she’s my best friend’, says another mother about her daughter. Indeed, the motives of the parents are inevitably challenged. Having asked if many families are a bit irrational, thus resulting in mis-medication – a doctor reluctantly concedes. In different circumstances, some kids would just be normal, moody, excitable children.

Furthermore, Louis tells us there’s still an issue about whether bipolar exists among children at all. Hugh, a young, intelligent, yet isolated boy, says he likes all the labels he is given. It gives him a sort of power – a justifying title to hide his confused emotions and surliness beneath. Additionally, a sufferer of ADHD, who is attempting a break from her medication for the sake of the documentary, ends up taking it anyway, simply because it is bothering her. To me, this is a psychological addiction born out of habit rather than chemical necessity.

Clearly there are children with many problems that require prescriptions. But having watched the documentary, it appears that doctors have a narrative – the ups and downs of bipolar and the restlessness of ADHD – which they use to fit many of the disruptive children that get brought to them. Indeed, they may have problems, but it’s a loose and heavily encompassing group of labels that are too liberally distributed.

Louis, by the nature of his questioning, agrees. However, what disappoints is the lack of a strong finish to the documentary, tying together all his suspicions. He lacks a sucker punch. ‘We are still operating in the dark’, seems a somewhat ambiguous cop-out in tackling the very clear problem of children as young as six being prescribed drugs.

Ian says:

I am a Dad, psychologist and director of non-for-profit www.gamesforlife.co.uk that with the University of Herts study has recently shown that mind -controlled educational computer games may provide a non-medical alternative for ADHD see www.herts.ac.uk/news-and-events/latest-news/Treatment-for-hyperactivity-in-children.cfm

I wached Louis Theroux with interest and suggest iPlayer viewing till this Sunday at www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00s56gx/Louis_Theroux_Americas_Medicated_Kids/
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