New York City Schools are trying to rebrand incidents of emotional disturbance as an emotional disability. An estimated 8,400 students in the area who have disabilities are also known to experience some form of emotional disturbance. In an attempt to destigmatize their hardships, the schools have made a proposal for the change on Monday.
The public will have a 60-day period in which to express their support or opposition before the state’s Board of Regents’ final vote. If passed, New York would become the 13th state to recognize an emotional disturbance as an emotional disability. It is already one of 27 states which recognizes and monitors varying degrees of emotionally distressed students. This issue comes at a time when a Declaration of National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health was published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association months ago.
Despite this potential change, some are wondering if focusing on the mere labels of emotional disturbance or emotional disability will offer any form of solution for the underlying issues causing the problems. For a time, the term disability was scrutinized as being biased and people were encouraged to call disabled people, “differently-abled.” This didn’t resolve the issue, if anything, it was considered more exclusionary or even patronizing.
Since physical disabilities are more likely to be long-lasting and incurable, many parents are wondering if labeling a child with an emotional issue as experiencing an emotional disturbance or having an emotional disability is ineffective either way, because names and labels tend to stick. Furthermore, they become a part of a person’s identity. Adding such labels will encourage underdeveloped minds to remain in this state of emotional need regardless of what terminology is used. It also perpetuates the myth that a person cannot heal from emotional distress.
Furthermore, proper diagnosis is a point of interest in this situation. The chemical effects of puberty, and the growing incidence of early puberty on the brain can be emotionally challenging — especially for children who have experienced trauma in early life. However, many of these issues are perfectly normal. Just as the misdiagnosis of ADHD has been recorded at an alarming rate for years now, concerns over the misdiagnosis of emotional disturbance paired with emotional disability labels may do more harm than good.
When misdiagnosed, emotional disturbance or emotional disability has serious consequences. Incorrect medications may be prescribed, and the situation is likely to grow worse as confusion and the inability to thrive continue. The schools which focus on language over treatment are not likely to quell any mental issues plaguing children given that numerous states have already made the switch yet the national declaration of mental health emergency for children remains in effect.
Concerned students, parents, teachers, and mental health professionals can speak up on the subject as more and more schools consider switching to this persuasive language. Their influence will ultimately determine whether changing terms like “emotional disturbance” to “emotional disability” remains in focus. Regardless, name changes don’t address the root problems and so whether or not actually treating emotional distress becomes a priority is a different issue entirely.