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A recent study of children’s health issues shows that an estimated 6.4 million children in the United States, ages 4 through 17, have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). According to The New York Times, who compiled this ADHD data, 6.4 million represents a full 11% of American school children. That’s a 16% increase since 2007 and a whopping 41% increase over the last decade. The increase in ADHD diagnoses is unsettling, mainly because a vast majority of the children being diagnosed (two-thirds) are also taking prescription drugs  such as Ritalin or Adderall, drugs that are known to lead to addiction, anxiety and occasionally psychosis.

According to the national survey, which covered a year in the life of U.S. kids, about 10% of parents had given their children dietary supplements for the treatment of ADHD within the past year, but nearly 83% of parents told researchers that they had given their children ADHD medication within the year. Some doctors and parents think the rise in ADHD diagnoses is a good thing, proving that the disorder is better recognized now. However, many think the increase is out of hand, and that kids may be getting dangerous medications simply so they can calm down a bit or do better in school. Dr. William Graf, a pediatric neurologist in New Haven and a professor at the Yale School of Medicine tells The New York Times, “Those are astronomical numbers. I’m floored. 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.”

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Right now, the APA says that the key features of ADHD are “Hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and an inability to sustain attention or concentration” and that these issues are more common in boys who are typically diagnosed between the ages of eight and ten years. Other key markers of ADHD in children, according to the APA include:

  • Difficulty finishing any activity that requires concentration.
  • Poor listening skills.
  • Excessive activity like running or climbing at inappropriate times.
  • Squirming in seats at school.
  • Very easily distracted.
  • Talking incessantly.
  • Serious difficulty waiting their turn in games or groups.

The APA notes that between 70 and 80% of children with ADHD respond to medications well. Other treatment recommendations include psychotherapy and better behavior management techniques on the part of parents. The APA Parent Medication Guide for treating ADHD recommends that, “Medication is a highly effective way to treat the symptoms of ADHD” then goes on to list the various medication options which include stimulant drugs such as methylphenidate and amphetamines and non-stimulants such as atomoxetine.

My problem with all of this is that the key features of ADHD sound remarkably similar to normal everyday kids who don’t get enough active play time or attention. I’ve known many a hyper active kid in my life, but only one or two who truly seemed out of control and in need of actual medical help. Of course, I’m not a doctor, but C.D.C. director, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden is, and he tells The New York Times, “We need to ensure balance. The right medications for ADHD, given to the right people, can make a huge difference. Unfortunately, misuse appears to be growing at an alarming rate.”

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What’s alarming to me is that the massive increase in ADHD diagnoses, and subsequent drug use in children seem linked to some other issues that could be solved without the use of drugs. For example, as ADHD cases rise, the following issues are also occurring:

Kids aren’t really made to sit on their bums for hours on end, yet they’re stuck in a school system and home life that forces them to do just that. It’s no surprise that more kids are being diagnosed with ADHD. Research show that when kids spend more time playing outside, they’re far less vulnerable to obesity, stress, ADHD, vitamin D deficiency and depression. Studies also show that a lack of physical activity is linked to poor motor coordination, physical brain changes and poor cognitive skills, among other things.

Maybe, instead of medicating kids we should try healthier techniques like supporting free active playtime, improving school quality, increasing family exercise, decreasing junk food, and encouraging far less screen time. Sadly, The New York Times points out that the situation of medicating kids may be getting worse before it gets better, noting that, “Even more teenagers are likely to be prescribed medication in the near future because the American Psychiatric Association (APA) plans to change the definition of ADHD to allow more people to receive the diagnosis and treatment.”

+ The National Survey of Children’s Health

+ Source: ADHD Seen in 11% of U.S. Children as Diagnoses Rise