by Sue Parry
Years ago teachers, counselors and principals began telling me that my sons were “underachievers,” “not working to their potential” and “not performing to their ability.” I listened patiently while they told me what the boys wouldn’t attempt or couldn’t do. Several times school personnel recommended that I have the boys tested by various experts for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or learning disabilities. We fell into a trap of going from one expert to another, with discrepancies between the testing adding to the confusion. Meanwhile, my sons were sinking under the pressure of extremely high expectations of academic achievement in our community and an inflexible education system.
I thought the teachers’ and counselors’ perception of my boys was actually part of the problem. And I wondered how much an overcrowded classroom, a burned-out teacher or a developmentally inappropriate or gender-biased curriculum might be contributing to the situation.
It wasn’t long before I began hearing more about ADHD. Many of my sons’ friends, spending time at our house to use the skateboard ramp, jump on the trampoline or hang out in the basement, started saying, “I’m ADHD” or “I act this way because I have ADHD.” These were boys I had been around a lot and they had always seemed like normal, regular kids to me. It was perplexing to hear how many had been diagnosed with ADHD because I had never noticed any behaviors that could have led to this label--but then they weren’t being asked to perform or conform at my house as they were expected to at school. Soon ADHD was all the buzz at soccer games, dinner parties and the pool.
I became skeptical about what I perceived to be the very high rate of ADHD diagnosis in our community. Out of curiosity I attended a meeting for parents of “special needs” children at which the head school psychologist announced that our school district had the highest consumption rate of Ritalin in the state of Washington. Not long after that I read an article in a local newspaper about the enormous increase in special education funding. An educator in our district was quoted as saying that we lived in “such an advanced and sophisticated community that even an average student will always feel left behind.” Having been a resident in the community for several years, I knew it had a reputation for being competitive and a bit elitist, but if my sons weren’t performing as well as their classmates, did this mean they had a disability? Eventually one well-intentioned teacher, who seemed genuinely concerned about my boys’ lack of performance, gave me a booklet about ADHD. (I later learned that a pharmaceutical company provides these booklets free to school districts nationwide.)
We were struggling to cope, and my husband and I were feeling extreme stress and anxiety. Then a pediatrician gave me a copy of the videotape ADD: A Dubious Diagnosis, by John Merrow. Watching this forty-five minute videotape changed my life. It convinced me that the marketing of this disorder (by the pharmaceutical industry and providers of counseling, testing, tutoring, etc.) was fueling the ADHD/Ritalin epidemic in the United States. The Merrow videotape launched me on a quest for more information and reinforced my skepticism as I dove into this multi-faceted and very complicated issue.
I learned that the number of children diagnosed with and subsequently medicated for ADHD has risen precipitously in recent years. Two out of three children diagnosed with ADHD are boys. Some physicians, parents and teachers swear by medication, saying the drugs are a lifesaver and have helped children struggling to turn their lives around. On the other end of the spectrum are those who consider ADHD to be a myth or fraud, viewing the use of drugs as an unwarranted and harmful intervention. The diagnosis of ADHD and the use of stimulant medications to treat children as young as preschoolers has triggered volatile, emotionally charged debate.
The drugs most commonly used to treat ADHD are Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta, Metadate, Dexedrine and Foculin. They are prescribed much more frequently in the United States than in any other country in the world. The rate of use varies dramatically from community to community within states, and white, affluent children have the highest rate of Ritalin consumption.
I came to believe that many children who are exhibiting “symptoms” of ADHD have something out-of-whack in their lives – but that our culture relies too heavily on the medical profession to intervene. Is the disorder in the child or is the child reacting to unreasonable demands or stress? I found there were others who were unwilling to simply accept that the problem was in the child rather than questioning the appropriateness of his environment and the stresses to which he was subjected. I shared their alarm about the rising rates of ADHD diagnosis and I became an activist in the ADHD/Ritalin Backlash movement. This is a network of parents, school nurses, school psychologists, pediatricians, psychiatrists, classroom teachers and special education teachers speaking out to challenge assumptions about diagnosing ADHD and medicating our children.
The controversy over ADHD has resulted in Congressional hearings, conferences, class-action lawsuits, and reports from government agencies. Many questions and much disagreement remain about the diagnosis and treatment of ADHD.
Many parents who resist recommendations from school officials to have their children tested or who question the legitimacy of a diagnosis of ADHD run into trouble. One significant development brought about by the backlash movement is that several states are now in various stages of legislation to prevent schools from recommending or requiring that parents put their children on medication. In July 2001, Minnesota became the first state to bar schools and child protection agencies from telling parents they must put their children on drugs to treat alleged problems like ADHD. In October 2001, Connecticut went a step further. Their new law prohibits any school staff member from discussing drug treatment with a parent. The purpose of this law is to assure that such talk comes only from doctors. Connecticut’s law prohibits school personnel from recommending, suggesting, pressuring or coercing parents and children in any way on the issue of psychiatric drugs. The law also prohibits the state from threatening parental custody for refusal to consent to psychiatric drugs for their children. Other states are in various stages of considering similar legislation.
As for my family, after much soul-searching we realized that for us the values and expectations of the community in which we lived had become oppressive and toxic. I had been trying to encourage and honor our sons’ unique capabilities and temperaments but was continually thwarted by our insular community and inflexible school system. Fortunately, my husband was able to take an early retirement. We had visited friends in Hawaii and loved it, so that’s where we moved. The best thing was that no one was breathing down our necks telling us something was wrong with our boys--Hawaii has had the lowest rate of Ritalin consumption in the U.S. for many years. While the pressures were not as high, the quality of the public schools was disappointing. If I had it to do over again, I would homeschool or send my boys to private school. Our sons are doing fine now, socially and academically.
© 2002 by Sue Parry
For More Information
March 2013 - New York Times' Alan Schwarz and Sarah Cohen report on the rapid rise in A.D.H.D diagnoses in the U.S., according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (see also additional reports by Alan Schwarz on NYTimes website):
ADHD Seen in 11% of U.S. Children as Diagnoses Rise
The PBS program Frontline takes a look at the ADHD controversy: Medicating Kids. There are extensive resources available on its website.
The National Institutes of Health Consensus Statement on ADHD (1998)
The PBS video documentary report ADD: A Dubious Diagnosis examines the financial aspects of increased diagnoses and medication of children.
Books Recommended by Sue Parry:
The Myth of the ADD Child by Thomas Armstrong
The Ritalin Fact Book: What Your Doctor Won’t Tell You by Peter Breggin, M.D.
Understanding Your Child’s Temperament by William Carey, M.D.
Should I Medicate My Child?: Sane Solutions for Troubled Kids With and Without Psychiatric Drugs by Lawrence Diller, M.D.