I can relate with others just fine. Sure, at times, I am a little awkward. But the majority of my social history has been successful, albeit a few important blips that I feel are important to highlight.
These blips signal that mental health professionals sometimes are too quick to label or pathologise social behaviours as problematic – and other times are totally unaware of red flags when it comes to school-age children in the course of their education.
I will spit it out. I have issues with naturally making friends. While I engage well with other people, friendship is a different thing. Friendship has more of a long-term connotation. Friendship also is an investment, emotional and otherwise. In this vein, it should come as no surprise that my long-term planning stinks. I am also poor when it comes to my finances – almost a direct result of poor investment and planning ahead.
Back to how friendship works. I first investigated my issues with friends in a memoir I published about my experience in middle school. During the writing of my memoir Wales Middle School: the rise of J. Peters, and after, I began to see patterns with specific behaviours I was enacting when relating with other students in school.
The behaviours I am citing were maladaptive coping mechanisms. I was projecting and acting out towards others. I was having a hard time dealing with being awkward socially. My kinship-building skills were abysmal, but for the most part, they were good enough or ‘passing.’ I made and kept a few friends. Enough to satisfy my thirst for socialisation.
The issues I experienced earlier on in childhood and during my education became ‘clinically significant’ in high school. When I say ‘clinically significant’, the issues I was experiencing met the diagnostic criteria for psychiatric diagnoses. Or, did they?
The difficult layer here which I hope to unearth and make visible for students and people with ongoing trouble finding joy in others’ company is a message of normalisation. Behaviours, feelings, and thoughts during adolescence are irrational, dangerous, intense, and almost every shade of label found in the DSM-5.
When I was ultimately hospitalised, my psychiatrist was quick to emphasise to myself and my family that it is important not to make too much of a diagnosis for adolescents. As a practising therapist today, I find my psychiatrist’s words years ago a gentle reminder to place just the right amount of value on a diagnosis. Enough to communicate my patients’ issues in real-time so proper medication or mental health treatment can be prescribed by myself or others practising with ease and precision.
Back to my experience in high school. I experienced the small issues earlier on in middle school, very much tucked away from school staff, metastasised. I am suggesting when I was upset with any given situation during the school day, I was labelled by staff as volatile. Verbal transgressions were much more threatening and alarming to school staff. My usual tendency to isolate (even to play videogames or spend time with family instead of students my own age) was no longer viewed as autonomous but as signs of deepening depression.
The narrative I am painting isn’t suggesting some students may have severe mental health issues requiring a psychiatric hospital or need medication. No, the narrative I am painting suggests that some students fall into a social ‘no-fly zone’ in terms of socially acceptable pro-social behaviours for their age, or whatever context they are fitted into by mental health professionals.
For example, when a theoretical student crosses into this no-fly zone, the school staff’s alarms or clinical antenna rise. Oh heck, back when I was a student, it was as if NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) was picking up unidentified flying objects out of Russia moving into our airspace.
I’m serious. Emergency meetings being called by social workers. Phone calls home to parents. Even a ‘wellness‘ check by the police. My point is, this can be seriously traumatic for some students. Students that cross into these no-fly zones are moving targets for school administrators and mental health professionals.
The reality and truth are that these students may be just fine, but are misunderstood. Regardless, whatever signal these students are creating with their behaviours, like in my case, students can be grossly misread. This is the real danger within high schools across America.
Max E. Guttman, LCSW is a psychotherapist and owner of Recovery Now, a mental health private practice in New York City.