This is not about politics. This is not about laws. This is about medicine, about the human brain and development, and about human beings. I am not a politician or a lawyer. I am a physician, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, a mom, neighbor and an American, and I am completely horrified at the treatment of the detained immigrant children who were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Watching this situation unfold is like watching a child pull on the handle of a pot of boiling water on the stove, but I am outside of the house watching through the window and cannot save him from the severe burns I know are coming. I am watching a disaster, knowing what will happen and knowing the future pain that will continue.
I have connections to many physicians who have had experiences with these children. Their encounters are extremely alarming, and there is evidence that these children are already exhibiting symptoms of serious trauma-related neuropsychiatric disorders that will affect them for the rest of their lives.
These children have experienced actual changes in their neurobiological systems — the neurons in their brain — and are likely to suffer severe, emotional and cognitive illnesses that are extremely difficult to treat. These diagnoses require intensive chronic treatment, which may not always be enough to address such trauma.
The initial separation of these children from their parents without warning or explanation has caused significant harm to these kids, and their subsequent treatment is making matters even worse. They are children, toddlers and babies. They are afraid, unaware of what is happening to them, alone and so extremely fragile. They are being told not to speak to anyone about their experiences. They are being subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and face threats from strangers who say if they do not behave, they will not see their parents again.
Not only have these children been physically separated from their sense of safety, their parents, but they have also had their most important possessions taken from them and have nowhere to seek solace.
Part of normal child development is for children to learn about the environment around them and slowly start exploring. While this happens, they often find a transitional object — a lovey, a toy, a blankie. These objects symbolize an extension of the mother-child bond — something physical that they can carry with them to keep them safe as they start to navigate the world.
As a psychiatrist, knowing the severe effects of ripping away a child’s comfort like this is completely heart-shattering. As a mother, it is equally gut-wrenching, thinking about a small child so afraid and alone and then without their transitional object or any kindness or comfort.
Imagine if this was your child. These children cannot hug one another; they are not allowed to be touched or consoled. While this may seem like a standard protocol, this is significantly harmful and will alter the course of their life for years to come.
There is no reason these children, toddlers and babies should not be shown kindness, regardless of how they got here; they do not deserve the cruelty that has been shown to them. They are kids! They need their lovey; they need their blankies; and yes, of course, they need their parents!
However, in the here and now, while they are not with their families, these children need people to be nice to them. They need people to care and to give them compassion. It is imperative. They have not done anything wrong, and with the severity of the mental health crisis in the world, I urge everyone to think of their acts and behaviors and how showing kindness can make a big difference in the midst of a nightmare.
Dr. Brooke Weingarden, DO, MPH, works as a child/adolescent psychiatrist at Birmingham Maple Clinic. She was a member of The Well/JN’s 36 Under 36 class of 2018.