While I was at university, many of my peers would take Adderall, a drug commonly used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (A.D.H.D.), to help them study or maintain focus while writing an exam. It was somewhat of a social norm and no one seemed to care why because it was so popular; however, I believe it is a clear representation of the social and academic pressures imposed on children to be “successful.”
It also begs the question: How are so many kids gaining access to Adderall? Author and journalist Alan Schwarz explains that American children are not only severely over-diagnosed with A.D.H.D., but also frighteningly under-educated on the drugs they’re being prescribed, so they end up selling the pills instead of taking them. Well-known for his investigative reporting on how Big Pharma manufactured the “A.D.H.D. Nation” through advertising and doctor bribery, Schwarz recently published his book A.D.H.D. Nation using a term he coined to describe the widespread mishandling and misdiagnosis of the disorder.
How A.D.H.D. Became An Over-Diagnosed Disorder
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 11% of children between the ages of 4 and 17 have been diagnosed with A.D.H.D. as of 2011. However, if you ask the American Psychiatric Association, they maintain that even though only 5% of American children suffer from the disorder, the diagnosis is actually given to around 15% of American children. This number has been steadily rising, jumping from 7.8% in 2003 to 9.5% in 2007. Schwarz identifies two main themes involved with A.D.H.D. misdiagnosis: the pharmaceutical industry’s role in pushing A.D.H.D. drugs, and doctors failing to identify the root cause of children’s behavioural issues.
In an interview with Scientific American, Schwarz explains: “Many kids have problems and need help—but those problems in many cases will derive from trauma, anxiety, family discord, poor sleep or diet, bullying at school and more. We must not abandon them. We must help. But we must also be more judicious in how we do that, rather than reflexively giving them a diagnosis of what is generally described as a serious, lifelong brain disorder.”
Big Pharma’s Role in Widespread A.D.H.D. Misdiagnosis
It’s no secret that pharmaceutical companies essentially buy out the medical industry. As with many other diseases and disorders, when it comes to A.D.H.D., pharmaceutical companies have paid doctors and researchers to overstate the dangers of A.D.H.D. and the benefits of taking their drugs and understate the negative side effects. It’s easy for people to believe this misguided information when it’s affiliated with well-known universities like Harvard and Johns Hopkins. Many people don’t even realize that these studies are funded by the very companies that profit from the drugs’ sale because that relationship is hidden in small print (source). Even though many of the advertisements Big Pharma has released state that A.D.H.D. medication is “safer than aspirin,” these drugs can have significant side effects and are actually considered to be within the same class as morphine and oxycodone due to high risk of abuse and addiction. You can’t just blame all doctors, either; many of them genuinely believe they’re helping these children because of the information they’ve been given in these studies and by Big Pharma.
Big Pharma creates advertisements for A.D.H.D. drugs that are specifically targeted at parents, describing how these drugs can improve test scores and behaviour at home, among other false claims. One of the most controversial ones was a 2009 ad for Intuniv, Shire’s A.D.H.D. treatment, which included a child in a monster costume taking off his terrifying mask to reveal his calm, smiling self with a text reading, “There’s a great kid in there.” The FDA has stepped in multiple times, sending pharmaceutical companies warning letters or even forcing them to take down their ads because they are false, misleading, and/or exaggerate the effects of their drugs (source).
The following New York Times video was created by Schwarz and Poh Si Teng:
What Is A.D.H.D. and Is It Even Real?
If brain scans are performed on people with A.D.H.D., there are clear structural differences; however, the majority of A.D.H.D. diagnoses are confirmed by observation, and often not even by a doctor. Parents or school teachers are typically responsible for observing a child’s actions, and if they fit the “criteria” for A.D.H.D., doctors confirm the diagnosis and hand them a prescription. Instead of getting to the root of these children’s “attention deficit,” they are told they have a medical condition that can only be fixed with medication. This is not only unethical, but also clearly damaging to a child’s self esteem. Many of these kids could simply be uninterested in the subject matter, suffering from some sort of emotional trauma, or even have heightened creativity and energy!
Many doctors question the legitimacy of A.D.H.D. in general and whether or not it should be classified as a mental disorder. This is largely because the definition of this and similar disorders is usually heavily influenced by the pharmaceutical industry. American psychologist Lisa Cosgrove and others investigated financial ties between the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) panel members and the pharmaceutical industry. Their findings showed that, of the 170 DSM panel members, 95 (56%) had one or more financial associations with companies in the pharmaceutical industry and 100% of the members of the panels on ‘mood disorders’ and ‘schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders’ had financial ties to drug companies (read our article about it here).
Neurologist Richard Saul spent his career examining patients who struggle with short attention spans and difficulty focusing. His extensive experience has led him to believe that A.D.H.D. isn’t actually a disorder, but rather an umbrella of symptoms that shouldn’t be considered a disease. Thus, Saul believes it shouldn’t be listed as a separate disorder in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic & Statistical Manual. You can read more about his opinion in our article here.
No matter what your stance on A.D.H.D. is, it is clear that too many children are being diagnosed with it and handed prescriptions without proper medical evaluations. If you or a loved one has just been diagnosed with A.D.H.D., I suggest you do your own research on the subject instead of simply taking drugs for a “mental disorder” that may have been falsely diagnosed.
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