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Maia Szalavitz Headshot

Another Child Dead: When Will We Wake Up to Tough Love's Toll?

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Although it hasn't yet received much coverage, yet another teenager has died under suspicious circumstances in a "wilderness program" -- this time, a 15-year-old boy who was mandated to a troubled teen program in Colorado by the state of Utah.

Caleb Jensen joins Martin Lee Anderson, Aaron Bacon, Michelle Sutton, Katie Lank, Erica Harvey, Michael Wiltsie (whose mother later killed herself and her other child), Kristen Chase, Tony Haynes, Ian August, Chase Moody, Ryan Lewis, Nick Contreras and dozens of others [warning: music plays, slow to load] who died needlessly because enforcing "tough love" was considered more important than preserving children's lives and health.

As a neuroscience journalist, I spend a lot of my time reading medical literature and marveling at what we now know about the human brain and how to help people when things go awry. Then, I look at what's actually available to people who seek or are forced into mental health and addiction treatment -- and I want to cry.

There are effective treatments for teen mental health and behavioral problems -- but they don't involve sending children away from their families to be beaten into shape by drill sergeants or exhausted into submission by forced hikes. We do know how to dramatically reduce teen misbehavior -- but it doesn't involve seeing teenagers as lying "manipulators" and ignoring their health complaints as evidence of malingering.

Virtually every death that has occurred in tough teen programs happened for essentially the same reason: the program believed that pain was "good" for kids and saw any complaints as sneaky attempts to avoid this necessary suffering. When such belief is combined with lack of oversight in remote facilities with under-trained staff, the only reason deaths are not more common is that teenagers are generally extremely healthy.

This latest death has followed the pattern I've seen in every prior case that I've covered. First, the program claims that the death is due to natural causes and was "a tragic accident." At the same time, state officials back the program and claim that it is excellent. Then, the truth begins to come out about how medical complaints were ignored and how other teens were maltreated. Only at this point are remaining youth (who have already had the trauma of seeing a peer die, aside from whatever abuse the program dishes out) removed.

If the past is any prologue, soon a history of poorly-trained staff, failures of compassion and lack of oversight will be revealed. Some parents and staff will staunchly defend the program as having been "life-saving" and will denounce those who try to improve conditions as getting in the way of a desperately-needed and healing organization.

It's a shame that the wilderness is being used as a way to abuse kids, as a way to impose harsh punishment in the name of "natural consequences." It's a shame that our mental health system -- and our courts -- don't require that treatment is proven to be safe and effective before it can be forced on people, especially children.

And it's a shame, but kids will continue to die and juvenile recidivism will remain high until we actually regulate, monitor and oversee these programs, ensuring that the treatments which are known to be safe and effective are delivered and punitive tactics known to fail are avoided.

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