By HAYLEY SIMS, Contributing Columnist
Prescriptions of Ritalin are soaring. Ritalin, technically called “methylphenidate”, is the drug-of-choice for the treatment of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Since the discovery of this disorder, Ritalin sales have climbed in lockstep fashion, with sales expected to reach over $17 billion per year by 2020. What’s going on here? Why is a drug for attention deficit disorder skyrocketing and why are children growing evermore plagued by this sad mix of disorders and rescue drugs?
Are our kids being sold out to Big Pharm using a bogus diagnosis?
Since the 1990's, there has been a clear rise in the amount of cases of ADHD in the United States. Ever since that time, health professionals and commentators have struggled to determine the rise in ADHD has come about because we have all gotten smarter about recognizing its symptoms or because more children actually are developing the condition?
Whichever is this case, here are the facts. In the U.S., 9.5% of all children between the ages of 3 and 17 in the US have been diagnosed with ADHD (13.5% of boys and 5.4% of girls). Let’s put that in perspective. In an average classroom of 20 children, 2 of them have been diagnosed with ADHD.
In the CDC’s 2011 survey, it was discovered that 10% of young people of high school age are taking medication for variations of ADHD, considered by some to be an alarming number.
However, is this a wonderful benefit of educational standards in a civilised society, or the
product of an overmedicated, oversold drug culture?
Why Are So Many Children Medicated?
There are two main sides of this discussion to consider: first, how has it come to be that
such a high proportion of the nation’s children are medicated and second, is the
medication working? Certainly, ADHD is a condition that can severely affect a child’sability to concentrate and even function properly in the classroom. Children with ADHD are more prone to act on negative impulses, such as lashing out at fellow students and
being generally disruptive in the classroom which impacts their own learning, as well as
that of others’ around them.
However, many doctors are pointing out that ADHD affects children on different scales, and perhaps it is the children whose lives are not as significantly affected by the condition, that are being ‘overmedicated’.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has expressed concern over this growing trend. They support the idea that Ritalin does indeed help the ‘small percentage’ of children who
But --- and this is a big “but”--- they say that ‘there is also strong evidence that the drugs have been greatly over-prescribed in some parts of the country as a panacea for so-called "behavior problems”.
In many of these cases, critics argue that alternative therapies should be put in use, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or education programs.
Why Are So Many Children Being Diagnosed with ADHD In the First Place?
Certainly, just as with many other conditions, in this day and age we have better diagnoses of ADHD and we are catching it in some children who would otherwise fall through the net. The past twenty years have seen great advancement in care for special educational needs, ADHD included.
Thus, many supporters maintain that Ritalin is a safe,
fast-acting solution that can improve the lives of many youngsters. However, critics will argue that actually, this is code for a ‘quick fix’ that does not deal with the core issues.
The Ritalin dosing of America's children could be the unintended consequence of a political act.
Remember the "No Child Left Behind Act"?
One critic attributes the upward trend of Ritalin prescriptions to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, whereby incentives are given to states for students’ success in tests: it is school targets like this
that call for diagnosis and medication of kids who fall behind.
There are more demands on kids in school and not enough resources to teach them properly - essentially, these critics are arguing that children (particularly those with behavioral difficulties) are being drugged to make them easier to teach.
Normal Boisterousness or ADHD?
Furthermore, the differences in numbers of boys and girls affected is interesting, and many question whether the natural ‘boisterousness’ of boys is being mistaken for a legitimate learning disorder.
Is it just a natural phase? So why are GPs, teachers and parents reaching for the pill bottle so quickly after a diagnosis?
Certainly, there are great benefits of Ritalin: it is a fairly inexpensive drug to obtain and is very fast-acting (meaning that results, or a lack of results, are realised very quickly). However, there are a number of concerns about the use of Ritalin that parents and teachers should be aware of.
Why Is Ritalin So Popular?
It should not be forgotten that there are a great number of benefits of taking Ritalin ---
there is a reason why it is so popular!
Ritalin is reported to greatly improve attention and
focus, as well as develop skills of organization and working towards goals.
Kids on Ritalin have less trouble finishing work, fidgeting, impatience and impulsiveness and better
relationships with family and friends.
One parent who has shared her positive
experiences with Ritalin has said that it ‘saved’ her son, and he can now do his homework without banging on the walls or snapping pencils in half. This particular child was expelled from countless schools, and exposed to a number of different alternative
therapies, but in the end, Ritalin was the only solution.
This case is certainly an example of a child correctly diagnosed with ADHD that significantly affected his life, and Ritalin was an effective solution. Furthermore, the Wellcome Trust ran a survey of over 100 children in the US and UK who were taking Ritalin to gain a greater insight into its effects.
The survey concluded that in fact, Ritalin does not turn children into "robots" and there is actually no evidence that Ritalin acts as a "chemical straightjacket".
Children do not lose control of their own minds when making decisions, the drug merely softens the
power of their impulse in making a negative choice – but the choice is still there.
For example, Ritalin gives them a moment to think before lashing out at the fellow student
who may be winding them up.
Are There Side Effects?
However, while there are these encouraging findings, parents should also be aware of the possible side effects of taking Ritalin.
Negative side effects can include
There have also been reports of a risk of sudden death in children who have heart problems.
These are serious risks, and parents should be properly advised on Ritalin before cashing in the
prescription. However, some children will experience these effects and be taken off the
medication, while others will not experience any side effects at all.
Above all, the primary concerns for most parents when deciding how to help their children in these positions seem to be moral questions. Should drugs be the first or last resort in helping my child?
For most, cognitive behavior therapy and alternative education is not financially feasible, and without the help of local authorities it can be unattainable.
While some parents would love to avoid drug prescriptions, without the help they need it is not an option. Secondly, Ritalin is not an actual cure for the condition – should children really be reliant on drugs for most of their adolescence?
And finally, as one parent pointed out, every child will face struggles and roadblocks throughout their college and adult life – should we be teaching our nation’s children that pills are the answer to our problems? The answers to these questions are undoubtedly subjective and parents should have the power and information to make a decision.
Yes, We’re Reaching for the Bottle Too Quickly
Recent trends in diagnoses of ADHD and the prescriptions of Ritalin alongside them suggest that we reach too quickly for the pill bottle. While ADHD is a serious, life affecting condition, we need to remember that every child’s needs are different and thus every treatment of every child should be. All children and parents should be empowered
to make their own decisions regarding the treatment of their family and necessary precautions are vital.
So, are our kids overmedicated? Probably, but that doesn’t mean that the prescribing of Ritalin should be stopped tomorrow. Rather, every case needs to be
given the time to decide necessary and appropriate action, so as to benefit every child,
whether that means drugs or no drugs.