Bright Shiny Things

On Tuesday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released startling new data on the incidence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in American kids. According to the CDC, over 6 million children between the ages of 4 and 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD. Despite coming on the heels of April Fool’s Day, those numbers are no joke.

Over the past ten years, diagnoses have skyrocketed. Eleven percent of all school age children in the US have received an ADHD diagnosis, nearly twice the number seen in 2001. Rates are even higher among older kids, with nearly 20% of high school age boys having a diagnosis. One in ten adolescent boys are currently taking prescription stimulants like Ritalin or Adderall to treat the condition.

The reasons for the startling increase in rates of ADHD among American children are unknown. One possibility is that physicians are becoming more knowledgeable about the condition, enabling them to recognize it in their patients. Perhaps, but one of the problems that doctors face is the lack of clear diagnostic criteria for ADHD.

Like other attention or hyperactivity disorders, ADHD is characterized by a diffuse set of symptoms. According to the current version of the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), symptoms of ADHD ranging from fidgeting to not listening, to talking excessively, to disliking mentally intensive tasks like schoolwork. But it is rare to find a school age kid in the US who doesn’t have some, if not all, of these symptoms, as so artfully suggested by the satirical cartoon South Park (an episode from season 4 entitled ‘Drug Free Treatment’ for those who are interested). Given the subjective nature of these diagnostic criteria, it is likely that the condition is over-diagnosed.

If I had been born thirty years later, I too would likely have an attention deficit diagnosis. In fifth grade, I was “problem child.” I didn’t pay attention, didn’t complete assignments, didn’t remain in my seat, and didn’t stay quiet in class. The reason was not that I had ADHD. The reason was that I was bored. The material being presented didn’t stimulate me intellectually. Luckily, I had a very astute teacher who recognized this. With my parent’s permission, he started giving me more challenging work to do, and my grades and behavior quickly improved.

Unfortunately, thanks to decades of budget cuts, teachers nowadays do not have the same opportunities to work with struggling students. An educator dealing with a classroom of 40 or more kids, while also being expected to write individualized student learning outcomes (SLOs) and to develop metrics and tools for assessing student achievement, cannot devote the time or effort necessary to figure out why a particular child is failing.

Parents may feel similar pressures. So when a kid is struggling in school or acting out in class or at home, frustrated parents and teachers might automatically label the child as ADHD rather than seek alternative explanations for their behavior.

Given the subjective nature of the symptoms – confirmed primarily by talking with patients, parents and teachers, all of whom have an interest in finding quick and easy answers to complex behavioral problems – it is easy to understand why many doctors feel compelled to prescribe medication. Moreover, some savvy kids may seek diagnosis and treatment on purpose, given that ADHD drugs are now popular as study aids on high school and college campuses.

Therein is one of the biggest problems: over-diagnosis leads to over-medication. This isn’t to say that some kids don’t benefit from treatment with drugs like Adderall or Ritalin. Those with severe attention deficit do benefit from treatment, developing the concentration and impulse control necessary to succeed in school and in the workplace. Untreated ADHD can also lead to problems later in life, including alcohol and drug abuse. But for kids with mild ADHD or who are misdiagnosed, pharmaceutical treatment can come with great cost.

In their advertisements and promotional materials, drug manufacturers tend to overemphasis the benefits of treatment while downplaying the risks. ADHD drugs can improve concentration and impulse control but can also have severe side effects, including anxiety, addiction and psychosis.

The CDC’s shocking statistics should serve as a warning to us all. Not that we are facing an epidemic of attention deficit disorders in the US, but that we are likely facing an epidemic of pathologization. What is normal childhood behavior has become, for harried parents, teachers and physicians, a medical condition to be treated with drugs. Increased public awareness and understanding of attention deficit disorders is a good thing, but we shouldn’t rush to the pharmacy for some Ritalin every time that Johnny fails a test or Sally talks back.

[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on April 4, 2013. It is also available on the WAMC website.]

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About Sean Philpott-Jones

A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Sean holds advanced degrees in microbiology, medical anthropology, and bioethics. He is currently Chair of the Bioethics Department at Clarkson University's Capital Region Campus and Director of the Bioethics Program of Clarkson University-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Director of two Fogarty-funded programs to provide research ethics education in Eastern Europe and in the Caribbean Basin. Until his term expired in August 2012, he served as Chair of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Human Studies Review Board, an advisory panel that reviews the scientific and ethical aspects of research involving human participants submitted to the EPA for regulatory purposes.
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