“But. I don’t want him to have a…” she looks around, and whispers, “label that follows him around his whole life!” Is a sentence or a variation on a sentence I have heard from a good number of people–people who care a great deal about their child: adopted or otherwise. Mostly these people are thinking about growing up in school and hearing whispers between adults about Eddie’s ADHD, Mary’s Autism, and a great aunt’s Depression. The whispers and grim faces painted a picture of pestilence for the person afflicted with these disorders. A throwback to even darker times when people suffering from mental illness were treated poorly rather than with empathy and love. 

And certainly, if your first thought when someone suggested having your adopted child’s psychological evaluation done was, “I don’t want a label to follow them their whole lives.” I don’t think you’re a bad, un-woke, backward person. What I do want to do is destigmatize mental illness and mental health disorders. 

I’ll start with myself so as to put my money where my mouth is so to speak. I was a flighty child. I daydreamed and read books when I was supposed to be doing 100 other things. I would get lost deep in a story and could not hear people talking around and to me until they would touch my arm or shout my name. I struggled to read body language and I struggled to make and keep friends. 

If I was in grade school today I would almost certainly have had a recommendation from the school psychiatrist to get evaluated for ADHD if not Autism Spectrum Disorder, Depression, and/or Anxiety. As it was, girls went undiagnosed for the most part unless their presentation was aggressive. Furthermore, medication was less fine-tuned. I have had a friend that refused her medication because it made her feel “not like herself.” 

Let me be clear, my medication makes me feel “not like myself” in the best possible ways. I am delighted to report that a medicated Chrissy is a very different person from an unmedicated Chrissy. Namely, when Depression creeps into my life, I am able to better cope. I can complete tasks, stay ahead of deadlines, and remember entire agendas for the day without forgetting half the steps along the way. 

My formal diagnosis is ADHD, Anxiety, and Depression along with some other things tossed in for fun. I am a much, much happier person today than I was before I had a label. And that label serves me well. That’s the key. The label isn’t to disclude me from the group. It’s to get me the help I need so I can be part of the group. 

Mental health is similar to physical health. The problem is, the things we would never deny someone with a medical issue, like insulin to a diabetic or heart medication to a person with heart disease, brain chemistry is less measurable. My brain doesn’t process dopamine correctly, in part. There’s a lot else wrong, but it boils down to this: some of my problems can be fixed with lifestyle changes: a standing desk with a wobble pad to stand on and rock while I’m doing work. Regular exercise, balanced meals, and avoiding certain people who are not healthy for me. Fresh air, sunshine, and a good protein-based snack can work wonders for the little Depression gremlin living in my brain. But none of those things completely fix the problem. Medication alone doesn’t completely fix the problem. Therapy, the right medication, and the right, consistent lifestyle changes make all the difference in the world. 

So, what does this have to do with your kids? No matter where your children were adopted from–domestic infant adoption, foster care adoption, international adoption, or kinship adoption, There will be unknowns in their history. Holes in the files help determine the best care for the child in question. 

If birth parents were drug and alcohol users, that can affect a child’s brain chemistry their entire life. That isn’t always disclosed in adoption files. If there is a history of mental illness in the family of origin, that’s important to know because some mental illnesses or disorders are genetic. 

Any label: Autism, ADHD, fetal alcohol syndrome, attachment disorder, and so forth isn’t a death sentence for a child. It’s another tool in the toolbox of the best care available. If the school your child attends is aware of a disability they are required by law to accommodate that. So, if your child struggles with sitting still in class, you can request an Individualized Education Plan or IEP meeting. If the child meets the criteria set by your state, the school will be required to provide appropriate accommodations so the child can perform in the least restrictive environment with their peers if possible. 

A good example is one of my children who has a classic presentation of ADHD. The evaluator laughed at me when I asked her if it was possible my kid had ADHD. It was obvious to her in the first minute of our interview. That label made it so we could go to the school and ask for her to be able to use fidgets if she was required to sit still for a long time. We asked if she could have extra time for assignments if she needed. We asked for homework to be modified (not eliminated, she was required the same amount as her peers, but the timeline was different for her so she didn’t get as overwhelmed.) 

The people that know her diagnosis are the people who care about and for her. It’s not announced to the class, and it’s not even something she’s totally aware of. She knows but isn’t sure what the implications of it really are since she’s still fairly young. She does not take medication; but if she ever needs it, I will make sure she gets it. 

That label, the thing people are afraid of, will help her to succeed in school and beyond. ADHD is recognized by the ADA. If she discloses her disorder, she can’t be discriminated against in the workplace. 

I completely understand not wanting to single your child out. I know it can feel like they already stick out like a sore thumb. But, I would like you to try and get comfortable with the idea that it isn’t a bad name. It isn’t taboo. It is a tool that can help.