A disorder unheard of 35 years ago appears to be epidemic today: 6.4 million children ages 4-17 are diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That number has risen 16 percent since 2007 and 41 percent over the past decade.
Parents reported nearly 1-in-5 high school boys and 1-in-11 high school girls have been diagnosed with ADHD by a healthcare provider. Since 2003, 2 million children have been diagnosed with ADHD, and one million more are taking medication for the disorder. Of those with a current diagnosis, 69 percent are being medicated with stimulant drugs like Ritalin and Adderall, which have side effects like anxiety and high blood pressure and can lead to addiction.
But those numbers translate into double the U.S. drug sales for the disorder in 8 years—almost $9 billion last year.
ADHD is a condition that makes it hard to pay attention and control impulsive behavior. Symptoms include daydreaming, easy distractibility, forgetfulness, fidgeting, interrupting, and talking too much. While all of those behaviors are seen to some degree in children, they are much more pronounced and consistent in one with ADHD.
There is little question that competently diagnosed patients with severe ADHD do much better behaviorally with medication. But with this significant rise in the number of patients and prescriptions, some are questioning how many of these children actually need to be medicated.
“These are astronomical numbers. I’m floored,” Dr. William Graf, a Yale pediatric neurologist, told The New York Times after seeing the new study. “Mild symptoms are being diagnosed so readily, which goes well beyond the disorder and beyond the zone of ambiguity to pure enhancement of children who are otherwise healthy.” In other words, the amphetamine-like drugs may sometimes be used as “mental steroids.”
Parents’ fears and aspirations for their children are the target of some marketing. One pharmaceutical pamphlet shows a mother looking at her child saying, ”I want to do all I can to help him succeed.”
Other students are looking for an edge, too. Studies estimate 30 percent of the pills are shared or sold to friends even though most experts don’t believe they significantly improve performance in non-ADHD individuals. Studies have found that in the long run, kids who take these drugs don’t improve their GPAs or achievement scores.
While a yet-to-be released CDC study suggests the growth rate of ADHD is slowing, the millions of young people who have been diagnosed with this disorder deserve better than the inconsistent and subjective diagnoses and the questionably effective treatments they are now getting.