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The Cactus Kid

Mental illness is not a disease.  Mental illness is a DIS- EASE


Everyone has phases, stages and degrees of mental DIS- EASE throughout their lives. Especially children, adolescents and young adults.  It is a part of normal growth and development- to go through phases of change.  Sometimes a young person gets stuck in a phase and it becomes something more- a mental health disorder and they may recieve a diagnosis. Often times, if the young person can receive the help and support they need, this phase shifts. The phase of Dis-Order returns to Order.  If they remain stuck, the goal of mental health treatment is to get them un- stuck. In children and teens, child psychiatrists hesitate to firmly

" diagnose a disorder" as we recognize brain, mind and identity development as a moving target.   If you are not sure if your child is going through a phase or stuck in a phase, talk to your pediatrician or a psychiatrist like me. 

In Psychiatry, diagnoses were created to help other mental health professionals have a common language to describe certain patterns of thinking and symptoms in patients.  For many patients and young people, these diagnoses have become a part of not only understanding themselves, but also identifying who they are.

I have found that parents as well will often identify their child by their diagnosis.

Diagnosis have shifted from a framework of patterns to an identity of core beliefs. 

How we see our children shape how they see themselves.

I choose to see children, teens and young people with diagnoses differently.

The way I see it is....

Every child is born as a rose bud. Beautiful, elegant, tightly closed with the greatest of potential. Yes, there are leaves and there are thorns, but they are identifiable and often avoidable. With love and care these rosebuds unfold to grace our lives with their chaotic perfection and long lasting fragrance. We learn to live with their thorns and embrace their flowers throughout our lives.

This is my hope for all children. For every child to unfold their true potential to the  world.

As a psychiatrist, for the children that I care for, there has often been a different path of development. Perhaps they were lacking in water. Perhaps their environment was arid and dry, with soil that was not so fertile. Perhaps the sun was too hot and they incurred a sunburn here and there. We do not know exactly how or why, but something changed in these little buds, morphing them into an entirely different species.


For these roses, they evolved to become what I call  "The Cactus Kid."

Cactus kids are still sturdy, still strong, but they have grown burrs and spines all over that are rampant and sharp. They evolved them as a means of both protection and survival. Coping strategies if you will, that may have initially served them but are now maladaptive. These burrs are the signs and symptoms of mental dis-ease: Anxiety, Depression, Anger, Apathy, Opposition, Self harm and even suicidal thinking.

Think of how painful it must be to be a cactus kidTo feel thirsty and undernourished all the time. To feel like no one wants to be near you. To feel like you hurt everyone around you without even trying.

To feel like you are no longer yourself.

If you are the parent of a Cactus Kid, you know how hard it is.

Let’s face it. You feel their prickles on you even when they are in another room.

You try to show them love and affection, but if you hug a cactus you are going to get hurt.
And yet we must care for them. But how?

Therapy works from the inside out. Therapy, good feelings, good food, sleep, vitamins
and sometimes even medications.
 Inside Out.

We don’t exactly know what went on inside to grow a cactus kid.

But….We do know some of the factors on the outside that forced them to evolve.

So whatever those factors are, we have to work to change them. From the Outside In.

We will help our cactus kids re-adapt. We will water them more frequently and liberally
with our attention and time. We will create some shade for them from the bright rays of
school and what they experience as unreasonable demands. We may even need to
manage our own expectations.
We will
nourish them with wholesome food and
affirmations. We will arm ourselves with garden gloves and extra padding to give them
care they need, and maybe even a hug or two. We will remind them that we know on
the inside who they really and truly are.


A rose in cactus clothing.

Shivana Naidoo, MD

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