Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The myths of ADHD

Over the years I have encountered many skeptics who believe neither in medicating children nor in labeling and diagnosing them. Deep, instinctual protective feelings towards children become displayed as unwavering hostility to all who prescribe psychiatric medications or attach a label to children. Anti-labeling and anti-medication becomes a lifestyle, a religious quest, an angry flag-bearing march against psychiatrists, psychologists, pharmaceutical companies, and even government-sponsored research. Books and diatribes about Ritalin nation, running on Ritalin, normal temperament, suppression of creativity, drug company conspiracies, myth of the hyperactive child, drugging into submission, medicalization of normal behavior, etc.—have all been part of the history of pediatrics and child psychiatry. More recently the attacks have broadened to include adult ADHD as well. Unfortunately there is always a grain of truth in these arguments. There is indeed over-prescribing, some children whose behavior is merely at the extreme end of the normal curve of temperament, some children whose life situations make them hyperactive and whose environments are the real problem; some who become zombies in the classroom from over-dosing, and some pharmaceutical companies who use lax criteria and exaggerate the numbers and the successes in treating with their drugs. As I suggested earlier, there is indeed some over-treatment, over-diagnosis, sloppy research, big pharma skullduggery in collaboration with corrupt researchers—matters well-covered in the media and in blogs by reputable critics (see especially the blogs on the subject by Barney Carroll). But the real world is complicated. Science may take a while to catch up with flawed opinions floating about in peoples' heads as if they were fact. We now know that there is also a degree of reality behind the diagnoses, brilliant successes with some of the treatments, justification for early interventions; that there are multiple genetic and environmental risk factors associated with many childhood psychiatric conditions. Though not ready for clinical use as yet, and notwithstanding the excesses by fraudulent practitioners of neurofeedback or brain scanning, there are nevertheless sound neuroscience advances at all levels that attest to the reality of conditions like ADHD; true diseases whose definitions are based in the genetics, biochemistry, brain morphology, and physiology of modern science. I also believe that there are many honest collaborations between pharmaceutical companies and rigorous scientists that have made tremendous progress possible in therapeutics and basic knowledge about psychiatric illness in children. That transparency and close oversight are needed in those collaborations seems obvious as well. I am prompted to bring these issues up because I recently read what I think is the most convincing and brilliant conversion by a standard critic into a more thoughtful advocate for appropriate diagnosis and treatment: the blog by Judith Warner, which I highly recommend: http://warner.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/03/01/second-thoughts/ There are many brilliant and thoughtful observers out there who have been self-assured critics of ADHD, thinking it all a set of myths, until they have such a child themselves, or run face to face with these children in the lives of family or friends. The more brilliant the opposition, the more stunning the conversion to the reality.