People & Research: Juho Honkasilta wants to initiate critical discussion on the medicalization and psychiatrization in education

The AGORA Research Centre brings together a wide diversity of researchers and research groups interested in current issues of social justice and equality in education. Here we will present their research. This time, we introduce University Lecturer Juho Honkasilta, University of Helsinki.

What are your research topics?

Inclusion in education

Medicalization and psychiatrization in education

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is the major phenomenon I’m focused on in my research that partly bridges my broad main research topics. I approach ADHD as a psychiatric diagnostic classification. Instead of assuming ADHD as something within an individual, I’m interested in understanding and making transparent structures that deem the assuming of ADHD as an individual trait meaningful and useful – pragmatic. Relative age effect on diagnosing and medicating ADHD in the youngest-in-class students is an concrete example of how broad structural issues manifest in ways diversity among children and in learning is reacted to at schools (see, Koutsoklenis, Honkasilta & Brunila, 2020). 

How does your research re­late to is­sues of so­cial justice and equal­ity?

In my research I bring forth paradoxes between the aims at supporting social justice and equality in structural level (policy, ethos, etc.) and their potentially counterproductive outcomes in practice. Unfortunately, inclusion in education in Finland is a fruitful field of study for this. Finland has gained international fame as some sort of model state of inclusion. However, inclusion in education is widely misunderstood as physical integration of students “with special educational needs” – whatever this vague, normative categorization of difference may refer to – rather than a broad human rights agenda which calls for reimagining and restructuring of education in order to ensure social participation and sense of belonging for all. Furthermore, inclusion is not conceptualized as a principled education practice in education policy, is poorly lead in practice, and ironically, excludes disability from the agenda of inclusion. (See, Honkasilta, Pihlaja & Pesonen, in review.) As for my research on ADHD, the existence of psychiatric diagnostic categories like ADHD bare the same paradox: They structure our institutional and social lives in ways that could be viewed as striving for social justice, and as they do so, they fortify structures that pose a threat for realization for social justices (see, Honkasilta & Koutsoklenis, 2022). Again, relative age effect on ADHD is a concrete example of how the gaze becomes turned from disordered structures to individuals assumed as having a disorder.  

Tell something about your latest/​​​​​current research?

My recent research publications have focused on the paradox of inclusion in education in the context of Finnish basic education approached from the Disability Studies paradigm (Honkasilta, Pihlaja & Pesonen, in review), on how ADHD diagnostic entity functions as a form of governance in top-down and bottom-up processes in institutional and social spheres of life (Honkasilta & Koutsoklenis, 2022; forthcoming), and on the essentialist nature of ADHD classification in the latest version of DSM5 – the so-called bible of psychiatry – published in 2022 (Koutsoklenis & Honkasilta, in review). I am also currently working on empirical research with my colleague Professor Gagnon on approaches to behaviour supports at schools. I find it interesting and important to strive to understand current practices and approaches to supports at schools in order to support the process of inclusion in education in practice.   

What kind of discussions would you wish to initiate with your research?

At the moment I would like to initiate critical discussion among (education) scholars on how inclusion and labelling of students are communicated about in research. As an example, I recently attended a webinar in which presenting scholars talked about large inclusive classrooms which may not have enough recourses to provide needed supports for all students and teachers in that very community. How is that inclusive then, if some students and teachers are abandoned? It is difficult for me to comprehend how scholars can communicate about inclusion while, in fact, they are talking about physical integration at best. In similar fashion, instead of unproblematically communicating about issues under research  by the use of more or less arbitrary labels that assume certain level of homogeneity, such as “students with SEN”, “with ADHD” or “with behaviour problems”, I would like to see ideologies behind such categorizations been discussed in research publications, even if briefly. For example, how do descriptions of student behaviours become translated into a social category called “student with behaviour problem or ADHD”? Or how do bureaucratic, system level reactions to providing education for students who do not or cannot adapt to the business-as-usual education provision become translated into a social category of “students with SEN” – i.e., with special educational need(s)? What does it even mean to be as student with a need for special education? What are the underlying issues that make means of providing education special let alone translate them as needs of an individual?  There is a difference between the use of certain categorizations as a useful means of conducting research and in how these categories are communicated about in research publications. These are issues that we are calling for potential authors to be critically aware of in the special issue on inclusion in education I am currently editing with my colleague:

Published 27.11.2022