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That Sort of Bear: How Winnie the Pooh Mirrors and Helps Children with Emotional Disorders by Donald McCarthy

If there is a more friendly and loveable character in children’s fiction than Winnie the Pooh, I don’t know about it. A.A. Milne’s stuffed bear Winnie the Pooh has stood the test of time since he first appeared in 1926, and for good reason. Pooh is a simple minded, yet incredibly loving, character whose friends each have a distinct personality and appearance which make the Hundred Acre Woods feel like a real world despite its fantastical nature. Pooh’s importance goes beyond the fact that he has entertained children and adults for many years, though. The world of Winnie the Pooh is important because it subtly addresses something that is still rarely talked about today: children who suffer from mental health issues.

The idea of clinically depressed young children still sounds weird to many but, sadly, many children are afflicted with depression along with other mental health issues. According to research done by Joan Luby, which she published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, children as young as three can suffer from depression and if the depression goes unnoticed by others the child is twice as likely to be depressed later in life. Due to work by Luby and other researchers, detecting depression among children has become easier. This is why depression rates among children appear to be increasing when, in fact, all that is happening is that doctors are becoming better at detection.

Depression, along with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder, and Anxiety Disorder, are treated with medication, even in younger children. However, as children sometimes have difficulty with the therapeutic process experts have developed a new strategy to go along with medication: Emotional Support Dogs (ESAs). ESAs are specially trained dogs that help children socialize and calm themselves to better handle either an emotional disorder or traumatic event. The presence of the dog is similar to a medication. Some doctors even have children talk to dogs about their worries because conversation with the animal proves to be less threatening for the child.

If you take a look at the animals in Winnie the Pooh you will see that many of them mimic the issues that young children might have. Piglet suffers from anxiety, Eeyore suffers from depression, Rabbit suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Tigger suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder. All of these characters are friends of Winnie the Pooh and while their specific issues might be used for humorous effect, the tone is always one of loving and caring. Not one of the characters is Pooh’s rival or enemy; rather, he considers all of them a friend and spends time with each.

Let’s take a look at Piglet. Though a permanently nervous creature,he is Pooh’s best friend and travels with him on every adventure. In many of the books and movies, Pooh must support Piglet when he is anxious due to, well, pretty much any circumstance he encounters. Winnie the Pooh acts as an emotional support “dog” for both the characters in the story and also for the child that is reading or watching the tale. Not only that, but with all of the animals having some sort of neurosis there is someone for every child to relate to so they do not feel like they are alone.

A key part of the success of these stories is that the characters are animals that talk, and thus seem more special to younger children. The fact that even these “special” animals have problems that the young viewer or reader may share doubles the positive impact of the tale. As a young child who had some issues I related extremely well to Winnie the Pooh and his stories, likely because I was quite similar to Piglet and Eeyore. It’s no surprise that my favorite stuffed animal (and I had a lot of them) was a stuffed Winnie the Pooh.

Thankfully, our society is removing the stigma from mental health issues, but it has yet to fully develop an understanding of mental health disorders in children. Perhaps it’s time we learned from Winnie the Pooh and see that young children know and experience a lot more than we suspect. We should all be thankful to A.A. Milne who, consciously or subconsciously, created a world where children of all different emotional states can feel safe.

Donald McCarthy has written news articles, op-eds, books reviews and short fiction. He lives in New York and attends Adelphi University. He is one of the few people on the planet who does not like cheese.

© 2012 Donald McCarthy