ADHD: Do we know the whole story?
I hear a lot of people say things like “I have adult ADD” or “It’s lucky that they weren’t into drugging children when I was a kid, because I definitely would have been a number one target!” (Yeah…me too…). A few years ago I read an article (in a magazine I was writing for at the time) where the author gave a long list of symptoms of ADHD, to help promote awareness about this wide spread condition.
Many people see themselves in these descriptions: “Disorganized, forgetful, difficulty sitting still, fidgety, trouble concentrating on one task for long time periods, easily distractible etc.” You read a list like that and think “Oy vay! That’s me! Now I understand why I have so much trouble keeping my life in order! I have a brain disorder!” And it’s that simple. Problem solved. Right?
Wrong! This defeatist attitude does not lead to healthy problem solving and task management; it leads to drugs and excuses to fail. The broad all-encompassing descriptions of ADHD have turned being human into a disorder (how terribly convenient for the drug companies)! It’s not easy to concentrate on boring activities for long time periods, and it’s not easy to juggle a million responsibilities. Life is full of seemingly insurmountable challenges!
“Adam Le’amal Yulad” man was created to work. Hard. When we are offered quick and easy solutions to complicated problems, we must stop and think. There are no shortcuts. No matter which path we choose, we are going to have to work hard to get there. Drugs may seem like the simplest solution. But raising children (and adults) is not easy.
I admit that I do not like drugs. I am particularly concerned about the idea of giving psychoactive drugs to children. I have spoken to many educators and therapists and even some parents who are very much in favor of drugging children. For the most part, however, the majority of parents do not like the idea of giving their children psychoactive drugs. Or at the very least, they see drugs as a last resort.
When people bring their children to my clinic for treatment for ADHD, I never take the diagnosis at face value. I do a thorough evaluation and history of the child to determine what’s really going on. Often I see children with no symptoms of any abnormalities. They have already received an ADHD diagnosis from a top neurologist or psychiatrist. I no longer wonder how these doctors can diagnose symptom-free children with mental disorders. The arbitrary diagnostic criteria for ADHD have become so broad that almost any adult or child could easily be given this label!
Many healthy children cannot fit into the increasingly narrow definition of normal. In the good old days, parents would boast competitively about whose child was most rambunctious. Zombie-kids were not considered a source of pride. Hyperactivity was a good thing; a sign of robust energy, not a disease.
Ritalin suppresses normal spontaneity, making children docile, compliant, obedient and sometimes socially disinterested. This may appear to be an improvement; but in many cases, all that has really happened is that the child has become easier to manage.
Many parents have told me that on psychiatric drugs, the spark of life seems to vanish from their children’s eyes. Their personalities can change so much that when they eventually take their child off the drugs, they feel like they finally have their child back. (To be fair, others have told me that Ritalin was a life-saver for them.)
The side effects of stimulants are no walk in the park. They frequently cause depression, insomnia, suppressed appetite and growth suppression. These are not rare side effects, but usually more common than not. It is rare to find a child who is not experiencing some of the above effects.
Additionally, despite claims that children’s self esteem improves once their behavior is controlled, surveys of children and my experience with these kids suggest otherwise. How would one expect a child’s self esteem to be affected by the knowledge that they have a “brain disorder” and are in need of psychiatric medication to achieve self control?
Perhaps it is merely those who have to deal with the difficult child whose esteem for the child improves. Many children on drugs are suffering. Just ask them.
One mother of a ten-year-old boy told me that her son was very happy on Ritalin. Later, when the child visited my office I asked him, “How do you feel when you’re off the Ritalin?”
“Energetic,” he replied.
“And on the Ritalin?”
“I have less energy.”
“Do you feel happy on the Ritalin?”
“No. I feel much less happy.”
I truly tried not to put words into this child’s mouth. I believe that his response was not only genuine, but also typical of children on Ritalin. Depression is a common side effect of stimulant drugs. Many parents are not aware of the extent of their children’s suffering. Some may argue that children who misbehave a lot will be treated with excessive anger and disciplinary measures, to the point of abuse. The question is: what’s worse for the child: angry adults (an external insult) or happy adults and the internal insult of drugs?
Some children become quickly addicted to their medications, and aware of their need for sedation, they will bouncily request the drugs first thing in the morning. These kids will have a very hard time if they ever decide that they want to discontinue their medication.
The therapeutic effects of stimulants are actually identical to the side effects. Children on stimulants are often transformed into emotionless or depressed human zombies. The drugs can cause obsessive or compulsive behaviors in the form of repetitive unproductive tasks. In a school setting, this comes in handy, since the child may now cooperate in schoolwork that they previously found boring or intolerable.(1)
Not every child who is bored, restless or even hyperactive and totally out of control has a brain disease. Even if they do, drugging them into compliance is a risky solution. Though, it might make the lives of those around the hyperactive child a bit easier, can we be sure that psychiatric drugs won’t ultimately leave the child worse off than when he started?
Many therapists and educators warn parents that children with ADHD who are not medicated are at great risk of going off the derech or using street drugs later on.
Next time, we will discuss what really happens if you choose not to drug. Including an interview with author and chinuch expert, Rabbi Leib Kelemen.
Breggin, Peter R. M.D., “Talking Back to Ritalin,” Perseus Publishing, (2001)
Yael Tusk, M.S.O.M. is a general practitioner of Chinese Medicine in Jerusalem. She has been treating both adults and children for over a decade. Feel free to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule an appointment phone consultation or to receive her free newsletter. Look out for her upcoming myth-busting book on health.