Going Into the Woods with Child Psychiatry


Psychiatry is in the woods…

red riding hood



You may be familiar with the 1987 musical theatre piece by Lapine and Sondheim, titled “Into the Woods.” It is having a rave revival on Broadway and, more personally, also put on by middle school aged intermediate campers at Interlochen Arts Camp, literally located in the woods of Northern Michigan where my wife also went to camp for 11 summers. In addition, there is a praised movie version available to all that could be of teaching use for those becoming child psychiatrists.

Over the weekend, my wife and I actually saw it 3 straight days, sitting on the left, right, and center. Probably only parents and grandparents would do that. Shades of my wife’s musical theatre past, our 13-year-old grandchild played Little Red, a version of Little Red Riding Hood. That was one of several 200+ years old Grimms Brothers fairy tales that were put together as a mash-up of complex challenges and terrible traumas. Besides Little Red, there was Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Cinderella, which in some ways could be thought to parallel our social psychiatric problems of ageism, abortion, climate instability, and racism, respectively. No wonder such fairy tales are timeless, even if they have usually been sanitized over time.

What ties them all together in the play from a psychiatric perspective are the variety of parental models and childhood traumas. We see overly controlling parents, missing parents, angry mothers, and rejecting stepmothers, among others. Wishes come true, like Jack finding his missing father, but we learn to be careful about what we wish for because there are dangers in these woods, whether the woods represent life or, perhaps, the unconscious, as in wish fulfillment dreams and nightmares. By the end, many are killed by a giantess in the sky, perhaps now representing COVID-19, and looking for revenge for the killing of her husband.

There are 4 survivors, 2 adults, and 2 children, who at the end successfully plot the killing of the giantess: the baker, Cinderella, Jack, and Little Red. They then decide to live together and support one another, a cautiously optimistic resolution of vastly different cultures and people. Maybe there will be more effecting “good enough” parenting of the children. They sing the hit song “No One is Alone,” with the closing lines:

“Maybe we forgot

They are not alone

No one is alone

Someone is on your side

Not one is alone.”

Psychiatry can be on their side. As the song suggests, besides our knowledge about child development and skills in treating trauma, with cultural competence and humility we can potentially help to successfully bring together such cultural diversity in our workplaces, our neighborhoods, and the wider world as long as we do not forget what we may be capable of doing.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times™.

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