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Grave New World:  Relying on Ritalin

The drug culture of the 1960s pales in comparison to the current generation, where it appears an abundance of overtaxed parents, physicians, and school systems may be responsible for pushing millions of healthy and normal American children into an unwarranted, yet perpetually drugged-out state.

The narcotic of choice is technically called methylphenidate, however, the general population knows it by its street name — Ritalin. 

“Ritalin is being dispensed with a speed and nonchalance compatible with our drive-through culture, yet entirely at odds with good medicine and common sense,” said Dr. Richard Bromfield, psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School. “I know of children who have been give Ritalin more to subdue them than to meet their needs — a practice that recalls the opium syrups used to soothe noisy infants in London a century ago.”

A generation of zombies

What parents overlook, Dr. Bromfield said, are the disastrous side effects of Ritalin. He said it can worsen underlying anxiety, depression, psychosis, seizures, nervousness and sleeplessness, and can also interfere with bone growth.

Dr. Leonard Sax, a physician and psychologist in private practice in Maryland said six million children in America, or one in eight, will take Ritalin this year. “The United States, with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, now accounts for 85 percent of the world’s consumption of Ritalin,” he said. “No other medication in American history has had this kind of success in achieving and maintaining such a grip on its market: not Valium, not Prozac, not Viagra.”

The use of Ritalin has become so widespread that Dr. Lawrence Diller, an assistant clinical professor at the University of California-San Francisco’s division of behavioral and developmental pediatrics, and author of Should I Medicate My Child?Sane Solutions for Troubled Kids with and without Psychiatric Drugs, said doctors today wouldn’t hesitate to put Tom Sawyer or Pippi Longstocking on Ritalin. 

This is confirmed in a study conducted by Dr. Adrian Angold of the Center for Developmental Epidemiology at Duke University Medical Center in Durham and consequently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Angold spent four years tracking children, ages 9 to 16 from 11 counties in western North Carolina in order to examine the use of stimulant medication in relation to a research-derived diagnosis of ADHD.

In his summary, Dr. Angold said, “The ‘safest’ conclusion one can make from data such as this is that at any given time, there are probably thousands of children in the U.S. who are treated with stimulants they probably don’t need.”

It’s much worse than that, said Gene Haislip, former deputy assistant administrator in the Office of Diversion Control in the Drug Enforcement Administration. He warned that Ritalin is a very potent, addictive, and abusable substance that is “overprescribed, overmarketed and oversold and a quick-fix bogus medical practice which is producing large profits.” 

Although many factors contribute to the growing use of the drug, Dr. Sax said one of the most profound is the current trend toward test-based school systems, such as those found in North Carolina. Problems occur, he said, when teachers and administrators change the core curriculum requiring elementary-age students to sit still all day long, in order to excel on their standardized tests.

Testing leads to drug abuse

Dr. Sax said educators face tremendous pressure from the school system to raise test scores, and the only way to achieve the goals is to change the curriculum to increase the likelihood of students scoring high. This, he said, is often done at the expense of the students. “Principals and teachers in these test-based schools aren’t stupid. Because standardized tests measure reading, writing, and math skills, more time will be devoted to reading writing and math,” he said. “Because the tests do not measure skills in music, art, gym, or playground social skills such as learning to play fair in a game of kickball, less time will be devoted to music, art, gym, and recess.” 

In some schools, Dr. Sax said, mandated tests have eliminated recess altogether. He also said standardized testing has compelled elementary-school curriculum to speed up, forcing children in kindergarten to put down their blocks, dress-up clothes, and show-and-tell items in order to master reading and writing.

Demanding attention all day

The problem, Dr. Sax said, is 5-, 6- and 7-year-old children, especially boys, are not at an appropriate age to sit through a day that consists entirely of reading, writing, and arithmetic. They find it difficult to pay attention. “I’ve seen this happen many times,” Dr. Sax said. “Sometime around the end of first grade or the beginning of second, the boy’s parents are summoned to the school for a team meeting. ‘Johnny isn’t reading at grade level,’ the counselor tells the parents. ‘He doesn’t pay attention,’ the teacher adds. ‘He may have ADD,’ the psychologist warns. ‘We think you should speak with your child’s doctor about getting your son on Ritalin.’” 

Often under the threat of expulsion from school, the parents bring their child to an overworked pediatrician, who has a waiting room full of patients, and an allotment of five minutes to assess the child before writing a prescription for Ritalin, Dr. Sax said. 

As a result, said Steven Baldwin, professor of psychology at the University of Teeside in Middlesbrough, England, the doctor doesn’t have enough time to distinguish a truly abnormal child from a child who is exhibiting developmentally normal behavior. 

Dr. James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, psychologist and author of the Complete Marriage and Family Home Reference Guide, said the child is normal, but is reacting to a profound lack of parental guidance in their life. He said the use of Ritalin helps parents to feel better about their lousy parenting skills. “Prescription drugs have been used as a cure-all for various forms of misbehavior,” Dobson said. “That is unfortunate. We should never medicate kids because their parents have failed to discipline them properly or because someone prefers to have them sedated.”

Irresponsible parents

Dr. Bromfield said giving Ritalin to a child with severe discipline problems can lead to only one thing — a colossal lack of personal responsibility. “By telling patients that their failures, misbehavior, and unhappiness are caused by a disorder,” he said, “we risk colluding with their all-too-human belief that their actions are beyond their control and weaken their motivation to change on their own.” 

A report submitted by the U.N. International Narcotics Control Board agrees, and strongly recommends vigilance by both parents and physicians in diagnosing children. “Among the dangers, as the Board sees it, are that ADD might be diagnosed too often, overlooking other causes for attention and behavior problems, and that doctors may be overprescribing methylphenidate,” the report said. 

John Grohol, a Boston-based clinical psychologist, said it’s time for society to awaken from its stupor and stop allowing the overprescription of Ritalin. “We should not be ignoring these warning signs,” he said. “As with any mental disorder, great care should be used in the assessment of, and subsequent treatment of (ADHD).” 

Otherwise, the fabric of the United States will be weakened and destroyed, said Dr. Peter Breggin, author of Talking Back to Ritalin. “We’re literally knocking out our brightest and most active children,” he said. “We are the first adults to handle the generation gap through the wholesale drugging of our children,” he said. “We may be guaranteeing that future generations will be relatively devoid of people who think critically, raise painful questions, generate productive conflicts, or lead us to new spiritual and political insights.”

 Welsh is contributing editor of Carolina Journal.