I am dismayed that Greta Thunberg’s detractors have weaponised her psychiatric diagnoses against her. Some have lashed out against her parents too. How did her medical information come to be in the public domain?
As a psychiatrist I have seen parents’ faces crumple when I’ve had to tell them their child has autism, schizophrenia, or some other distressing diagnosis. However gentle and careful I am, disbelief, shock and tears replace the hope on their faces in an instant. After a long painful moment, the shock slowly gives way to resignation.
So I can imagine what Greta’s parents must have felt when their child’s doctor gave the diagnoses: Asperger’s syndrome, OCD and Selective mutism. They had to support her. Without their support, she would have continued to be anxious, depressed and anorexic on the outside, and disillusioned, helpless, and dying a little each day on the inside. I don’t think anyone who has children can fault this child’s parents.
I personally believe Greta’s fears for the earth have a strong basis in science. Her fears for her future resonate with me because I have thought of the same things on behalf of my children, nieces, nephews, friends’ children and all the fresh, exuberant, youngsters that I see on the streets and on television, livening up the more jaded lives of adults all around the world.
As she has pointed out, we adults don’t have our entire lives ahead of us. While we’ve had it good, we have degraded the planet. They are the ones left facing a water crisis, polluted air, an overheated planet, melting glaciers, rising sea levels that destroy entire coastal communities, and floods, storms and earthquakes. Scientific knowledge to deal with these already exists. As Greta says, “I want you to unite behind science. And then I want you to take real action. Thank you.”
I am relieved she has taken a stand on behalf of her generation. But I would like to share what I have been telling myself whenever I started to worry on my kids’ behalf. I needed to tell myself this because I don’t have Greta’s courage.
- Earth’s climate has always been changing. Climate alternates between being warm and wet, then cold, glacial and dry for several thousand years at a stretch. They are called Marine Isotope Stages. We have been in the current warm, wet period for the last 14,000 years, the Holocene epoch. We have data covering the last 2.5 million years. What’s happening could be partly a natural process.
- Organisms on earth co-evolve with the environment – the Gaia hypothesis. Human beings weren’t always here during the 4.6 billion years of the earth’s existence. We are only 70,000 years old (a human bone found in Morocco is estimated to be 300,000 years old, so we could be that old!). We somehow evolved and came to be, just as other species of Homo somehow became extinct.
The point is, nobody has been around long enough to know exactly what will happen to the earth towards the end of the Holocene epoch, whenever that comes. We didn’t come with an Instruction Manual on how to use Earth. But we can’t continue to plunder and brutalise our planet – that much is certain – morally and pragmatically, even if not on a scientific basis.
To get back to her psychiatric diagnoses, I am not sure if the diagnosis of OCD is still valid. It might have been a provisional one based on her unceasing rumination about the climate crisis at the age of eleven.
Perhaps she couldn’t process the discrepancies in adult doublespeak. There is often a conflicting subtext in adult conversation and behaviour, for example talking angrily about a neighbour at home and then greeting her with pleasure on the street. Children get confused when adults say something and do the opposite, more so if the child’s autism predisposes her to concrete, instead of, abstract thinking. As Greta said in one of her speeches to her parents’ generation, “You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to.” This, coupled with an autistic child’s intense preoccupation with a narrow range of interests, explains why she was obsessed with climate change.
An additional diagnosis of Selective mutism might be unnecessary because Autistic Spectrum Disorder itself would make it hard for Greta to indulge in social chitchat, unless she was a normal talker before. She has described how she went into a deep depression after she learnt about climate change and realised that adults were not doing anything about it: “I stopped talking. I stopped eating.”
I watched Greta’s speech – “This is all wrong” – at the UN Climate summit two days ago. She made her point. But there are other problems in the world that she is completely unaware of, not only because of her age, but also because she lives in a country that doesn’t have these problems.
Sweden has a population of only 10 million while India, for example, has a population of 1.37 billion. These people need to earn and to live. They need jobs and money.
On 23rd September, when Greta was probably preparing her speech for the UN Climate summit, I read this in the same day’s issue of The Times of India.
One would think Greta Thunberg and the economist Ritesh Kumar Singh who wrote this don’t live on the same planet. He is thinking of how to help people with jobs so they can live, while she is thinking of how to keep the planet viable so they can live! These are the two viewpoints that need balancing.
Greta should know that her views have been taken into consideration by people of both her parents’ generation and her own. Things will not change overnight, but they gradually will, with a combination of individual and community effort, plus suitable legislation and international co-operation. The first step is acknowledgement, which she has got us to do.
In that sense, she has been successful. Maybe it’s time to go back to school. She can still keep an eye on things, continue to contribute her views and nurture the movement she started. The generation that takes the baton from us will devise better systems, I’m sure.
One thought on “this is all wrong”
As a mother I have always been thinking what am I leaving for my child for her future. And what our generation is giving them. It’s not fair. Basic healthy living which was so conveniently available has now to be thought about, discussed. Greta is right and I’m sure there are so many more children questioning similar points.