Rise in ADHD rate spark disputes

Now more than ever, kids are being diagnosed with ADHD. CNN reports that as of Nov. 22, 2013, 11 percent of children between the ages of four and 17 in the United States have been diagnosed with ADHD­, totaling 6.4 million children. This is a 42 percent increase in diagnoses since 2003. When I first heard about this rise, I wondered why and how is this rise occurring, as well as what it meant in terms of drugs distribution and treatment.

When searching for doctors’ feelings on this issue, a comment that stood out was by Dr. Allen Frances, the former chairman of Psychiatry at Duke University. Frances’ explanation is similar to my own initial thoughts on this topic. He said that, “the numbers shouldn’t be taken at face value; the history of psychiatry is a history of fads, and we are now suffering from a fad of ADHD.” A cause of this could be pressure from pharmaceutical companies that sell ADHD medication.

Dr. Frances was not coy about his answer, but many other health professionals have stood behind him. Susanna Visser, the leader of an ADHD study for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), has been vocal in agreeing with Dr. Frances and notes that more than half of all ADHD diagnoses occurred by age six (CNN, “ADHD diagnoses rises to 11%,” 11.22.2013). The pressure to diagnose the disease so early in a child’s life may be evident of such outside influences.

Last semester, I wrote an article about the use of study drugs. In that article, I quoted a male student from The New York Times who openly talked about manipulating a health professional and added himself falsely to the list of children who have ADD or ADHD. He said, “I take Adderall. Maybe I have ADD. Maybe I don’t. I don’t really know. I knew how to say the right things to the psychologist to get the diagnosis, and the pills that make my life much easier” (“In their own words: study drugs,” 6.9.2012). In a lot of cases, it’s been also documented that children will successfully manipulate doctors into diagnoses for drugs for themselves or to sell. According to one Vassar student I spoke with, they have seen other students sell pills from three to seven dollars each.

But Dr. Joesph Mercola, a New York Times Best-Selling Author, had a different conclusion to this issue. In an essay published on his website, he notes, “I think you’ll find it interesting that this trend also coincides with increased prevalence of the pervasive weed killer, glyphosate, in the American food supply. Glyphosate-contaminated food has recently been implicated in the dramatic rise of both ADHD and autism, the latter of which is clearly more extreme in terms of behavioral difficulties” (Mercola.com, “What Causes the Rise of ADHD in Children, 12.05.13). Dr. Mercola also points out that many experts believe that this increase in diagnoses may also be associated with a greater awareness of mental health issues in general.

In terms of medication and treatment options, there has been a 28 percent increase in children taking drugs to manage the disorder since 2007, and more than 3.5 million children ages four to 17 are prescribed ADHD medication (CNN, “ADHD diagnoses rises to 11%,” 11.22.2013). Drugs used to treat ADHD include stimulants, such as Adderall, Vyvanse and Concerta, and non-stimulants, such as Strattera and Intuniv. These drugs have side effects that include sleep problems, headaches and a suppressed appetite. Pressure from pharmaceutical companies has been known to play a role in the type in drugs that are prescribed. There are also alternative treatment options, such as behavioral therapies, and lifestyle changes, such as the person’s diet.

It’s clear that experts and doctors alike have differing opinions on the rise of ADHD, as well as possible treatment options. What matters, though, is the fact that there is a continuing rise in diagnoses, and that research continues to figure out why. With all these differing opinions, there certainly is no one answer to all of these concerns, and it may be confusing to understand all perspectives, but understanding more about health issues like these is something everyone should pursue.


—Delaney Fischer ’15 is a neuroscience major.

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