By Marcia Caller Jaffe / firstname.lastname@example.org
I am not related to nor had I ever met Steven Jaffe, one of Atlanta’s leading child/adolescent psychiatrists, until our recent interview. I wish I had, as I always tease that in my next life I want a spouse who is a CPA, car mechanic, veterinarian and psychiatrist.
The past four decades, Jaffe has treated thousands of children from his office in Sandy Springs, his professorships at Emory and Morehouse, and his leadership of various addiction programs. His warmth and enthusiasm led him through his training at Johns Hopkins, Albert Einstein, UCLA, Harvard and Emory.
He speaks all over the world, primarily on teenage addiction. Jaffe, a New York native, sports a polished green-stone talisman from New Zealand and a red hamsa bracelet for good fortune. All his bases are covered — except, stylishly, no socks.
MCJ: Why did you select this field?
Dr. Jaffe: Growing up, I spent a lot of time with my younger [by 11 years] brother and knew I wanted to work with children. Also, I was not very good at lab work and found general pediatrics monotonous. I had a wonderful child psychiatry experience and knew that this was where I belonged. A famous genetics professor once posed, “Is what you’re doing asking the questions you want to ask?” In child psychiatry I felt I could ask the questions and might even find some answers.
MCJ: Let’s get right to it. Is there much more mental illness among children today? I hear of so many diagnoses of ADHD, bipolar disorders or depression that were not on our radar a few years ago.
Dr. Jaffe: Perhaps. Much of the increase may be because the stigma of mental illness has been lifted. Parents, especially Jewish parents, are more concerned with getting their children help. Also, we are better able to diagnose and treat mental problems in children.
MCJ: A lot of doctors get labeled as “pill pushers.”
Dr. Jaffe: By the time they get to me, they usually have gone through traditional talk therapy, and psychopharmacology might be the best option. I am very much into parents and patients being in an alliance with me. I welcome their research and want them to know as much about the problem as I do. Then we can look at possible treatments.
MCJ: Do you find that Jewish children have more addiction and emotional problems?
Dr. Jaffe: No, I’m not aware of any research that supports that. Jewish parents have always emphasized education. Throughout our history (even if the parents were impoverished), the children were taught to read so they could be knowledgeable of the Torah. Also, thinking and questioning issues of emotional life contributed to Jews being introspective and open to look at psychiatric problems. Conversely, today’s kids have enormous pressures. I think it’s a tragedy that there is so much emphasis on test performance, which distracts from emotional growth. I would conjecture that this was the nexus of the Atlanta teachers cheating scandal.
MCJ: So my generation’s parents were too strict. My peers swung the other way to indulge and be friends with our children. Now my children are striving not to spoil their children.
Dr. Jaffe: We need a balance between love and boundaries. Our teens need to know they are worthy of love, and they need to emotionally connect with their parents. They need limits so they have a face-saving excuse to avoid high-risk situations. When a teenager says, “Trust me,” the proper response is “Show me.” Saying no can be a loving action. Also, hugs are important.
MCJ: Drugs — why do kids get involved?
Dr. Jaffe: Six percent of high-schoolers smoke marijuana daily. We need to reclassify pot so we can do more research. It definitely is not good for the brain of someone under 23. Kids start to escape stress or follow others using drugs. But above all, teens drink, smoke pot and use drugs because it’s fun. Smoking marijuana does impair driving. An alcoholic runs red lights; a pot smoker stops at green lights.
The real epidemic today are opiates — pain pills — especially OxyContin [$50 a pill]. When that habit becomes too expensive, they turn to heroin, which is cheap. Yes, Jewish kids also! For the past few years we have an epidemic of heroin addiction in white middle- and upper-class suburban families. This has resulted in the sharp increase of deaths due to accidental overdose.
A young heroin addict once told me, “It’s like an angel comes down and wraps me in a warm blanket.”
MCJ: So how do you help them?
Dr. Jaffe: I help direct one of the best substance abuse treatments: the Insight Program. Here teens learn to connect and experience having fun without drugs and alcohol.
MCJ: Why do you think your lectures are in demand? What really is your gift?
Dr. Jaffe: I started out as an anxiety-ridden, introverted child. I sought advice from smarter people and became an overachiever. I wanted to teach and learned to give very informative, humorous talks. Above all, I have been credited for lecturing where my enthusiasm and love of working with teens is apparent.
MCJ: Do you ever get weary of hearing hours of people’s dramas and hardships?
Dr. Jaffe: The old joke is “Who listens?” The real answer is no. Every patient I see is unique, and the challenge is how to help them.
MCJ: A 1667 quote from the Earl of Rochester: “Before I was married, I had three theories about raising children. Now I have three children and no theories.”