Getting placed on the pill treadmill

April 8, 2013

In the 1955 movie “Blackboard Jungle,” Glenn Ford tries to restore order in a classroom packed with ruffians at a New York school for boys even as most of his colleagues have been broken or given up trying.

Fifty-eight years later, Ford would probably have a much easier time of it – most of his rambunctious charges would have long-since been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and handed a prescription for Adderall or Ritalin.

Few would dispute that the use of prescription medicine has been a blessing for young people who truly suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, along with the families and teachers left to tame their unruly impulses. But it’s becoming more and more apparent that young people – particularly teenagers – who engage in fairly typical behavior are getting diagnosed with A.D.H.D. and being placed on the pill treadmill.

According to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 percent of all school-age children, and close to 20 percent of teenage boys, have been diagnosed with A.D.H.D., a 41 percent increase over the last decade. Two-thirds of those are taking prescription drugs for the condition. The number is not likely to drop anytime soon, since the American Psychiatric Association is poised to broaden the definition so even more young people – and some adults – will have the A.D.H.D. label wrapped around their necks.

In this formulation, one wonders if a teenage boy who, 30 years ago, was less than enthralled by his algebra homework but was otherwise not a troublemaker would now be hauled off to a pediatrician and handed a prescription.

Eyes drifting toward the window on a nice spring day during an interminable meeting? Yes, according to some folks, you could have A.D.H.D. and are not just suffering from simple, human distraction or boredom.

Some parents who are anxious about their children’s success or ability to get into a top-tier college or university have embraced their children using pharmaceuticals as a means to get them to buckle down and focus. And once some of those students win their prized spot at the institution of their choice, they continue swallowing the pills so they maintain their edge, or sell them to classmates who are similarly eager to keep pace. And pills like Ritalin or Adderall are not as consequence-free as a vitamin pill or a tablet of children’s aspirin. They carry a host of side effects, from seizures to addiction.

Writing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, education writer Maureen Downey noted that “some doctors are hastily viewing any complaints of inattention as full-blown A.D.H.D....while pharmaceutical advertising emphasizes how medication can substantially improve a child’s life. Moreover, they said, some parents are pressuring doctors to help with their children’s troublesome behavior or slipping grades.”

Downey also quoted Jerome Groopman, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, who underscored that “there’s a tremendous push where if the kid’s behavior is thought be quote-unquote abnormal – if they’re not sitting quietly at their desk – that’s pathological, instead of just childhood.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “Youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness.” Now, it appears in many cases we’re using our own madness for chemicals to tamp down on the natural unruliness of youth. Clearly, it’s time for parents and some doctors to – figuratively, of course – take a pill and calm down.



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