How the School System is Labeling Children with ADHD
The number of American school children who are diagnosed with ADHD is increasing every year at a rapid rate, leading some medical professionals and even parents to question whether children are being misdiagnosed with the behavioral disorder when they are simply displaying normal child behavior. By 2011, 6.4 million children between 4-17 were diagnosed with ADHD, amounting to 11% of children in that age group. This figure has risen from 7.8% in 2003 and 9.5% in 2007. Boys are much more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ADHD. Nearly one in five school boys have received a medical diagnosis for ADHD. Overall, the number of children thought to have ADHD has increased by 41% in the last decade.
Now, one in 13 school children are currently taking psychotropic medication, either for ADHD or another behavioral or emotional disorder. The drug Ritalin is a common choice for doctors looking to treat hyperactivity in children. Structurally, it is similar to cocaine, its effects are also very similar and it increases dopamine levels in the brain – the pleasure receptors in the brain that are implicated in addiction. Because of its stimulating properties, some children who take Ritalin will also have to take sedatives so they are able to go to sleep at night. Like cocaine, Ritalin speeds up metabolism and reduces appetite, causing weight loss in some people who take it. The fictional medical TV drama, ‘House’ referred to Ritalin as ‘PG rated cocaine’, but while the program is made up, the concern is real. It is known that a diagnosis of hyperactivity in childhood increases the chance that the person will later abuse substances such as alcohol, cigarettes or drugs. Although this is thought to be because people with hyperactivity are more impulsive, it may be because they become used to the effects of stimulating psychotropics and seek out the same effects in other drugs when they reach adulthood.
Alarmingly, problems of drug addiction don’t always start in adulthood. Kids who are prescribed medications may begin misusing them while they are still in school and it is becoming more common for young people to deal in prescription drugs. Even those with no ADHD diagnosis or other illness may trade pills with other children or teens in order to ‘get high’ or to help them stay up late into the night to complete their studies. As Ritalin increases concentration it is sometimes misused by students as an educational aid. Rates of drug abuse are similar to the diagnosis rates of ADHD, with 11.4% of 12-25 year olds using prescription medications for non-medical reasons. More than two and a half percent of high school seniors have abused Ritalin in the last year and rates are much higher for other behavioral medications like Vicodin and Adderall.
Is ADHD Misdiagnosed?
But why are so many American children given prescription medications? Are the nation’s children really unhealthy and unbalanced or is there something else going on? Psychiatrist Peter Breggin thinks so. Mr Breggin says that the symptoms of ADHD such as fidgeting, talking excessively, leaving their seat in the classroom, impulsiveness, easy to distract, day-dreamy or forgetful are all entirely normal personality traits of some children, particularly young children. If those personality traits become disruptive or harmful there is usually always a non-psychiatric reason such as a physical illness, tiredness, poor parenting or poor teaching, boredom or distress but doctors are increasingly giving children a label of ADHD and placed on medications for symptoms or personality patterns that are mild. However, there are no biological markers for ADHD and no tests that identify any physical problem. Mr Breggin asserts that the symptoms listed in the DSM-5 are merely a list of behaviors present in a classroom setting and are not usually indicative of any psychological disorder.
Poor Teaching Encourages the Drugging of Children
Another sign that children are being misdiagnosed is that the youngest children in the class are more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than their older classmates. One of the reasons for this is that the ‘disruptive’ children are five years old, rather than six, and that academic education begins far too early in a child’s life. During those formative years, a child learns through play and through his primary attachment figures – normally his parents. If a child is away from his primary attachment figures for long periods of time, unable to play freely, he may rebel through distress with combative behavior. Research shows that in countries where children start school at age seven, their academic success and exam pass rates are higher.
The behavior of infants may only be perceived to be combative, though, as fidgeting, inability to sit for long periods and a lack of focus are often the normal attributes of a five year old.
Around one million five year olds are misdiagnosed with ADHD every year because they display typical five year old behavior and don’t yet know how to conform in a classroom environment, or they are simply bored by unstimulating lessons. As the school system teaches every child of the same age at the same level, the ‘one size fits all’ policy may not work for gifted children, who could find the classroom tedious or resent having to perform a task they already know. The personalities of those who are very bright often have traits that are mistaken for defiance or ADHD, such as skepticism of authority, boredom with routine tasks, reluctance to practice things already learned and a day-dreaming, creative mind. These are all aspects of a highly intelligent mind, yet too often such children are falsely labelled with ADHD or another behavior disorder and may never receive the special attention and education they deserve to cultivate their talents and reach their full potential.
The Parent Factor
Dr. Jerome Chapman from Harvard Medical School says that normal childhood behavior is now being seen as an illness. In some cases, experts concur that parents are asking doctors to medicate their children in order to deal with defiant behavior or worsening school grades. Some behaviors may simply be attention-seeking. If the parents aren’t at home often due to full time jobs or they aren’t giving firm enough discipline or boundaries to their children they may act out with increasingly combative behavior. According to Child and Family Social Work, quality of parental caregiving plays a vital role in the aetiology of the condition and good quality parenting can be a treatment for it. Far from being judgmental, it may be society that has allowed this to happen as now it is seen by some to be a taboo to even say ‘no’ to your child. In the midst of fear of unwarranted litigation, it can be challenging to set appropriate guidelines for a child. Low wages and lack of flex-time jobs for parents may mean they have no choice but to try to juggle work with family life. Other causes could also include the child’s over-indulgence in junk foods (food dyes make you hyperactive), vitamin deficiencies or even an undiagnosed medical illness.
Whatever the reasons, there are too many kids on medication and more parents want a drug-free alternative and a different way of communicating with their hyperactive child.
Author Jenni Rose
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