The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that roughly 11 percent of school-age children in the United States — and 19 percent of high-school-age boys — have been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Are that many of our children really hyperactive? Or do many of the youngsters diagnosed with ADHD simply live in a society with an attention problem?
Many doctors, scientists, and sociologists who have looked at these numbers think there is a massive over-diagnosis. Some assert that educators are looking for a way to control their classrooms by medicating unruly students. Some Europeans who have read the study think our real problem may be diet.
The figures show that about 6.4 million children between the ages of 4 and 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD at some point in their lives — a 16 percent rise since 2007 and a 53 percent increase over the past decade. About two-thirds of children with a current diagnosis of ADHD take prescription drugs such as Adderall or Ritalin, which can improve the lives of patients, but also may lead to addiction, anxiety, and psychosis.
“Those are astronomical numbers — I’m floored,” said Dr. William Graf, a pediatric neurologist and professor at the Yale School of Medicine. “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.”
About 10 percent of U.S. high school boys are aided, or “enhanced,” by ADHD medications. If the problem is really social distraction, or excessive consumption of sugar and salt, or television, then it is a scandal that we are drugging our children. We are playing fast and loose with the nervous systems of thousands of young people, when the real problem may be cultural and behavioral.
The all-too-free application of strong drugs to control children who really need to learn self-control is a moral problem of a high order. Americans need to face it.