Physicians are prescribing drugs like Adderall and Ritalin, used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to low-income kids even if they haven’t been diagnosed with ADHD because they say it’s the only way to boost their academic performance.
The New York Times reported last week:
“I don’t have a whole lot of choice,” said Dr. Anderson, a pediatrician for many poor families in Cherokee County, north of Atlanta. “We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid.”
Dr. Anderson is one of the more outspoken proponents of an idea that is gaining interest among some physicians. They are prescribing stimulants to struggling students in schools starved of extra money — not to treat A.D.H.D., necessarily, but to boost their academic performance.
There is a disturbing pattern here: a huge increase in the number of struggling students being prescribed meds like Ritalin and Adderall, mostly in underfunded, inadequate schools.
Here’s how one mom describes her situation to The New York Times:
For some parents the pills provide great relief. Jacqueline Williams said she can’t thank Dr. Anderson enough for diagnosing A.D.H.D. in her children — Eric, 15; Chekiara, 14; and Shamya, 11 — and prescribing Concerta, a long-acting stimulant, for them all. She said each was having trouble listening to instructions and concentrating on schoolwork.
“My kids don’t want to take it, but I told them, ‘These are your grades when you’re taking it, this is when you don’t,’ and they understood,” Ms. Williams said, noting that Medicaid covers almost every penny of her doctor and prescription costs.
How sad that these kids are being forced to swallow drugs they don’t want.
There are other solutions.
As an advocate of getting children re-connected with nature and encouraging them to spend time outdoors, I’ve seen how natural environments can enhance intelligence. And there is plenty of research to back this up.
Several recent studies have come up with the exciting discovery that kids with ADHD perform better after they have spent time in nature. In one project, researchers at the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois found that children show a significant reduction in the symptoms of attention-deficit disorder when they engage with nature.
How about prescriptions for nature instead of prescriptions for Ritalin?
There are those who really do need medication for ADHD. I remember clearly John, a 10th grader who was in my fifth period English class several years ago. He was supposed to take his Ritalin in the morning and again at lunch. Normally he was on task, ready to work and maybe crack the occasional joke, but whenever he forgot to take his midday pill, he became loud, unfocused and generally rambunctious.
Yes, it’s true that some students need psychotropic drugs to function well and have a better life. But plenty of other kids may well need an added or alternative therapy.
In case you’re still not convinced, here’s another tragic story from The New York Times:
When puberty’s chemical maelstrom began at about 10, though, Quintn got into fights at school because, he said, other children were insulting his mother. The problem was, they were not; Quintn was seeing people and hearing voices that were not there, a rare but recognized side effect of Adderall. After Quintn admitted to being suicidal, Dr. Anderson prescribed a week in a local psychiatric hospital, and a switch to Risperdal.
According to many medical experts, the long-term effects of these drugs are not well understood. Some doctors fear that children will be dependent on the medication well into adulthood.
That’s one concern, and then there’s the issue of poverty and underfunded schools.
In 2011, more than 31 million of the total 50 million students enrolled in public schools in the US qualified for free or reduced lunches. (A child from a family of four earning under $29,965 annually qualifies for free lunch, and if that income is under $42, 643, lunch is discounted.) This is a shocking statistic, and one we should be ashamed of.
As for inadequate funding, the superintendent of one major school district in California, who spoke to the New York Times on the condition of anonymity, pointed out that just as school funding has declined, so have that diagnosis rates of A.D.H.D. risen.
“It’s scary to think that this is what we’ve come to; how not funding public education to meet the needs of all kids has led to this,” said the superintendent, referring to the use of stimulants in children without classic A.D.H.D.
You can hardly blame low-income parents for wanting the best for their children, but this should not be the choice they are facing. Medications are not benign interventions. They are dangerous.
Giving drugs to children who do not need them is just plain wrong.
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