Diagnoses for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have rapidly increased in the past 30 years, especially in the United States. The U.S. has 5 times more cases of ADHD than any other country in the world. However, controversial diagnostic methods and treatment procedures have prompted many parents, teachers and medical practitioners to question their validity. Though the diagnosis may provide initial relief, the social stigma, medical costs and drug side effects can be detrimental.
It is now common for preschool age children to be placed on highly potent medications such as Ritalin. Ritalin is a Schedule II central nervous system stimulant, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), a label reserved for the most dangerous and addictive drugs which can be prescribed legally. Ritalin's ® side effects range from insomnia to seizures, or even death. Matthew Smith was diagnosed with ADHD as a 7 year old. He was 14 on March 21, 2000 when he collapsed while skateboarding outside with his cousins and soon died. An autopsy by Dr. Dragovich, then the chief pathologist in the Oakland County Medical Examiner's Office, revealed heart complications due to over-use of methylphenidate, the scientific name for Ritalin. There are no blood tests or brain scans which proved Matthew had ADHD. Such tests do not exist. ADHD is diagnosed through second-hand reports from teachers and school administrators. Matthew's fidgety behavior was enough to convince medical practitioners that a drug with frightening similarities to cocaine would help him be a better student. After thousands of dollars spent on Ritalin and years of child psychologists, Matthew's behavior never improved and his heart conditioned worsened.
Cases such as Matthew's are very rare, and it would have been near impossible for the Royal Oak medical community to predict such a terrible outcome. Doctors and teachers thought they were helping Matthew, but the truth is they were masking the symptoms of another problem which was never discovered. Take the case of Brandon, a little boy from Australia who was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 4. By 2004, at the age of 12, he was on Dexamphetamine for ADHD and tranquilizers to stabilize his mood. Frustrated with their inability to help their son, Brandon's parents took him off the medications. After a series of doctor and psychologist visits they discovered that Brandon had learning and hearing difficulties. Brandon's disruptive behavior was a message to his parents that he needed help, not that he had an attention deficit disorder.
As Martin Whitely, ADHD policy expert and member of the Legislative Assembly in the Parliament of Western Australia, writes, children with ADHD symptoms “can be difficult to control in a classroom and in many cases are more compliant” when on Ritalin, but “there is absolutely no scientifically valid evidence” that these children learn faster or that the root of the problem is ever addressed.
We need to change the conversation from how can we subdue unruly and disruptive children in the classroom to how can we effectively help our children learn and grow. Fortunately, there are many simple lifestyle changes we can make, and many health professionals who can advise us along this path. A resolution is more easily found by removing dietary or environmental factors, than adding more chemicals and complication to the mix.