Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The FDA, Pharmaceuticals, and ADHD

By Anna GrosshansPublished April 25, 2014

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Since 1990, the number of children being treated for ADHD has jumped from 600,000 to over 3.5 million. These powerful drugs have serious side effects for the children that take them, but major pharmaceutical corporations continue to push their products. \r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n
By Anna Grosshans, 04/25/2014


            Over the past 15 years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has cited the producers of every major drug used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, with false and misleading advertising.  The recent push to increase medical prescriptions for ADHD by major pharmaceuticals is disturbing.  Since 1990, the number of children being treated for ADHD has jumped from 600,000 to over 3.5 million, and many of these diagnoses have been based on dubious symptoms.

            A study published in the Journal of Health Economics in 2010 showed that the youngest kindergarteners in a class were 40 percent more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than the oldest kindergarteners in the same class.  The younger students were also twice as likely to take drugs for ADHD as the oldest students.  Maturity and discipline play a major role in a child's behavior, and many doctors and health care providers are mistaking normal phases of childhood development for ADHD.

The average diagnosis of ADHD takes about 15 to 20 minutes.  This is not nearly enough time to take into consideration all of the factors and symptoms that help to distinguish normal childhood immaturity from a true medical disorder.  Furthermore, this is not enough time to distinguish between symptoms caused by ADHD and those caused by other medical disorders, as there is often significant overlap.  Medical professionals should be required to take into consideration many different factors, including talking to parents, teachers, caregivers, and the children themselves.

The current culture in the United States encourages a lifestyle that can often lead to or enhance behaviors that mirror the symptoms of ADHD.  A normal child will wake up early, scarf down breakfast, sit at a desk all day during school, and spend a few hours in an after school activity before even making it home for dinner.  After a quick dinner, it is back to the grind as children work to complete their homework.  With a schedule like this, it is no wonder children have a hard time paying attention in class and sitting still all day.

There is consensus among medical researchers and professionals that ADHD is indeed a legitimate disorder that affects a small percentage of people, but this small percentage is nowhere near the 15 percent of high-school aged children who have been diagnosed with and treated for the disease.  This trend of over-diagnosing and overprescribing is not only bad practice; it is very harmful for the patients on the receiving end.

Drugs that are used to treat ADHD are very powerful.  They can have serious side effects that in some cases can do more harm than the symptoms for which they are prescribed.  Potential side effects include a loss of appetite and subsequent weight loss, irritability, anxiety, nausea, insomnia, and others.  They can even suppress parts of a child's natural personality.  Furthermore, there is no research on the safety of long-term use of these drugs as the child's brain develops.

            Doctors need to spend more time assessing the situation before prescribing powerful drugs to young children.  Many medical professionals personally benefit from the tendency to reach for their prescription pad, however, because they are paid by pharmaceutical companies to promote their drugs.  Furthermore, children who are accurately diagnosed with ADHD can be effectively treated with alternative approaches, including changes in diet, behavioral-management programs, and more appropriate classroom environments and expectations. Medical professionals, parents, and teachers need to understand that difficulty sitting still for extended periods of time, lack of discipline, or poor grades in school are not always symptoms of an attention deficit disorder, but rather can be a natural part of childhood development and a product of the environment in which a child is raised.  Most importantly, pharmaceutical companies should not be allowed to continue promoting their products at the expense of children's safety and wellbeing.