According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control, a staggering 6.4 million American children between the ages of 4 and 17 have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), whose key symptoms are inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity—characteristics that most would consider typically childish behavior. High school boys, an age group particularly prone to childish antics and drifting attention spans, are particularly prone to being labeled as ADHD, with one out of every five high school boys diagnosed with the disorder.
Presently, we’re at an all-time high of 11 percent of all school-aged children in America who have been classified as mentally ill. Why? Because they “suffer” from several of the following symptoms: They are distracted, fidget, lose things, daydream, talk nonstop, touch everything in sight, have trouble sitting still during dinner, are constantly in motion, are impatient, interrupt conversations, show their emotions without restraint, act without regard for consequences, and have difficulty waiting their turn.
The list reads like a description of me as a child. In fact, it sounds like just about every child I’ve ever known, none of whom are mentally ill. Unfortunately, society today is far less tolerant of childish behavior—hence, the growing popularity of the ADHD label, which has become the “go-to diagnosis” for children that don’t fit the psycho-therapeutic public school mold of quiet, docile and conformist.
Yet while being branded mentally ill at a young age can lead to all manner of complications later in life, the larger problem is the routine drugging that goes hand in hand with these diagnoses. Of those currently diagnosed with ADHD, a 16 percent increase since 2007, and a 41 percent increase over the past decade, two-thirds are being treated with mind-altering, psychotropic drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall.
Indeed, not that long ago, the very qualities we now identify as a mental illness and target for drugging were hallmarks of the creative soul. Many of the artists, musicians, poets, politicians and revolutionaries whom we have come to revere in our society were unable to sit still, pay attention, concentrate on their work, and stay within the confines which had been set out for them in the classroom.
Visionaries as varied as Mahatma Gandhi, Richard Feynman, John Lennon, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Thomas Edison, Susan B. Anthony, Albert Einstein, and Winston Churchill would have all been labeled ADHD had they been students in the public schools today. Legendary filmmaker Woody Allen claims to have “paid attention to everything but the teachers” while in school. Despite being put in an accelerated learning program due to his high IQ, he felt constrained, so he often played hooky and failed to complete his assignments. Of his school days, Gandhi said, “They were the most miserable of his life” and “that he had no aptitude for lessons and rarely appreciated his teachers.” In fact, Gandhi opined that it “might have been better if he had never been to school.”
One can only imagine what the world would have been like had these visionaries of Western civilization instead been diagnosed with ADHD and drugged accordingly. Writing for the New York Times, Bronwen Hruska documents what it was like as a parent being pressured by school officials to medicate her child who, at age 8, seemed to have “normal 8-year-old boy energy.”
Will was in third grade, and his school wanted him to settle down in order to focus on math worksheets and geography lessons and social studies. The children were expected to line up quietly and “transition” between classes without goofing around… And so it began. Like the teachers, we didn’t want Will to “fall through the cracks.” But what I’ve found is that once you start looking for a problem, someone’s going to find one, and attention deficit has become the go-to diagnosis…
As Hruska relates in painful detail, each time the overall effects of the drugs seemed to stop working, their doctor increased the dosage. Finally, towards the middle of fifth grade, Hruska’s son refused to take anymore pills. From then on, things began to change for the better. Will is now a sophomore in high school, and is on the honor roll.
The drugs prescribed for Ritalin and Adderall and their generic counterparts are keystones in a multibillion dollar pharmaceutical industry that profits richly from America’s growing ADHD fixation. For example, between 2007 and 2012 alone, sales for ADHD drugs went from $4 billion to $9 billion.
If America could free itself of the stranglehold the pharmaceutical industry has on our medical community, our government and our schools, we may find that our so-called “problems” aren’t quite as bad as we’ve been led to believe. As Hruska concludes:
For [Will], it was a matter of growing up, settling down and learning how to get organized. Kids learn to speak, lose baby teeth and hit puberty at a variety of ages. We might remind ourselves that the ability to settle into being a focused student is simply a developmental milestone; there’s no magical age at which this happens.
Which brings me to the idea of “normal.” The Merriam- Webster definition, which reads in part “of, relating to, or characterized by average intelligence or development,” includes a newly dirty word in educational circles. If normal means “average,” then schools want no part of it. Exceptional and extraordinary, which are actually antonyms of normal, are what many schools expect from a typical student.
If “accelerated” has become the new normal, there’s no choice but to diagnose the kids developing at a normal rate with a disorder. Instead of leveling the playing field for kids who really do suffer from a deficit, we’re ratcheting up the level of competition with performance-enhancing drugs. We’re juicing our kids for school.
We’re also ensuring that down the road, when faced with other challenges that high school, college and adult life are sure to bring, our children will use the coping skills we’ve taught them. They’ll reach for a pill.