Teachers, parents, sport’s coaches and music teachers all seem to recognize the symptoms of ADHD (or Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, though it seems everyone already knows that). What used to be an unknown acronym and a nearly nonexistent diagnosis are now heard all around the playground.
Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D. is one of many concerned about how common ADHD has become — not because the illness isn’t legitimate, but because it’s too often misdiagnosed, with dangerous consequences.
In her book A Disease Called Childhood,Wedge reports that between 1987 and 2014, America’s ADHD diagnosis had gone from 3 percent to a striking 11 percent. If ADHD was truly on the rise, wouldn’t other nations have similar statistics to report?
Wedge’s article about ADHD in French society notes that “less than 0.5 percent” of French children are diagnosed and medicated for the illness. Wedge gives possible explanations for the stark difference, but the frightening fact remains: Many American children are being medicated for an illness they don’t have.
Parents trying to help their children do well in school, manage hyperactivity and inattention are consulting doctors who happily (and quickly) prescribe Adderall or Ritalin, or even antipsychotic drugs. While there are some legitimate cases of ADHD, many children are being diagnosed for acting like kids: kids who would rather run around than do homework or who fidget to get out their endless energy.
Of course, there are genuine cases of ADHD, and these children can be helped through medication. However NPR did report on how one particular study “found that most children had not been diagnosed with a mental disorder before being given antipsychotics.” That seems like a scary prospect knowing how these prescriptions are decided.
As Wedge quotes in her book, “[T]here are no clear guidelines on which of these drugs is preferable for any given patient. Decisions by psychiatrists on which drug to prescribe are based largely on personal preference and on simply trying them out on the patient.”
For a trial and error style of prescription, these drugs have some serious symptoms. Mood swings, increased suicidal thoughts, weight gain and suppressed growth are only a few symptoms of popularly prescribed ADHD medications.
Mark Olfson in the NPR article noted that these powerful drugs should really only be used “when other treatments have failed, as a last resort.” But that doesn’t seem to be the case.
The New York Times recently reported on the thousands of toddlers being medicated for ADHD. Not only does the American Academy of Pediatrics not have guidelines for diagnosing ADHD in children younger than 3, there’s really nothing that supports using such medications with children this young.
In a telephone article with the New York Times, Dr. Lawrence H. Diller quoted, “People prescribing to 2-year-olds are just winging it. It is outside of standard care.” Though exact numbers haven’t been released, it’s estimated up to 10,000 toddlers each year are medicated.
While there are reports on how the drug methylphenidate can reduce ADHD’s symptoms in young children, Dr. Doris Greenberg quotes that it should “be a last resort for situations that have become so stressful that the family could be destroyed.”
There shouldn’t be 10,000 last resort cases like that in the United States.
Dr. Greenberg adds how “some of these kids are having really legitimate problems…but you also have overwhelmed parents who can’t cope, and the doctor prescribes as a knee-jerk reaction. You have children with depression or anxiety which can present the same way, and these medications can just make those problems worse.”
With her family therapy programs, Marilyn Wedge has found athletics or music has been a great outlet for ADHD symptoms, often to the point where some patients don’t need to be medicated.
As these doctors and physicians have recommended, behavioral therapy should be the first step for ADHD symptoms, not medication. Heavily discussing all treatment options and potentially waiting for a concrete diagnosis (for your 3-year- old) can help avoid medicating your child for something they don’t have.