Twenty percent of American male students and more than 10% of students overall have been diagnosed as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This represents a substantial rise over the last decade and adds credence to concerns that American children are being needlessly over-medicated under the guise of helping them achieve academically.
More than 6 million students between the ages of 4 and 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD, which is a 16% increase since the last time this data was published in 2007. Of those who have been diagnosed, a full 2/3 have been prescribed medicine – either Ritalin or Adderall – to help them control their symptoms.
Although the drugs have been proven to work well for those with the disorder their list of side effects is daunting, especially when considering that many who take it aren't even adults yet.
"Those are astronomical numbers. I'm floored," said Dr. William Graf, a pediatric neurologist in New Haven and a professor at the Yale School of Medicine. He added, "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."
Nor is there any indication that the trend is reversing. On the contrary, the report predicts that the rate of diagnosis and prescription is likely to continue to grow.
In part, this is due to the fact that the American Psychiatric Association is planning to change the definition of the disorder in the upcoming revision of its diagnostic manual. The disease is most often described as an abnormal chemical reaction in the brain that short-circuits attempts at concentration.
While some doctors and patient advocates have welcomed rising diagnosis rates as evidence that the disorder is being better recognized and accepted, others said the new rates suggest that millions of children may be taking medication merely to calm behavior or to do better in school. Pills that are shared with or sold to classmates — diversion long tolerated in college settings and gaining traction in high-achieving high schools — are particularly dangerous, doctors say, because of their health risks when abused.
James Swanson, a professor of psychiatry in Florida International University, says that recent diagnoses numbers simply don't pass the smell test. He says that there's no way that one out of five high school males is really afflicted with ADHD rather than just having some difficulty controlling his impulses. He says that over-medicating kids with stimulants like Adderall is just setting them up with problems for life — including addiction and abuse.