Education / Healthcare

Bad Grades? Here’s a Prescription

The New York Times reported yesterday on the increasing frequency of prescriptions for stimulants (commonly used for ADD and ADHD) being given to children who have no medical problem.

These children receive medication because they have been struggling in school.

According to the article, children who are struggling in school, especially those in low-income situations, can receive prescription stimulants for the sole purpose of increasing their educational performance. Not all doctors are willing to give prescriptions for that reason, but this practice is on the rise.  Dr. Michael Anderson, a proponent of this practice, prescribes these stimulating medications to children who don’t have attention deficit disorders because, he says, “We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid.”

The effects of the drugs on children who don’t have attention deficit disorders is still largely debated. Some say that there is little to no harm in giving children stimulants to help them focus in school. Others say the stimulants are exposing children to physical and psychological risks. They worry that children will have psychotic episodes including severe depression, will become dependent on these drugs even into adulthood, etc.

The article described a family, the Rocaforts, whose four children all take prescription stimulants to help with schoolwork. Two of the children have never been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD.  One of the children had his medication changed after seeing people and hearing voices that were not there and admitting to suicidal thoughts. The parents acknowledge that there are two ends of the spectrum, and they have experienced both ends. Regarding a daughter who does not have ADHD, the father, Rocky, said, “If they’re feeling positive, happy, socializing more, and it’s helping them, why wouldn’t you? Why not?”

The public response to this article did not seem to indicate support. Ana of Kentucky commented on the article:

I’m a pediatrician and a child psychiatrist, and I deal with ADHD on a daily basis. I get where this physician is coming from. It’s beyond frustrating, trying to get schools and parents to alter the child’s environment to make it more learning-friendly. They either can’t or won’t put in the time and money (for the schools, it’s more won’t), so what are we left with? However, using these medications as a crutch is beyond dangerous. I have never prescribed ADHD medications to a child who didn’t meet the criteria for it. The concerns for dependence are valid, as are the dangers of illegal diversion, particularly in low-income areas where drug problems tend to be worse….

Ana’s comment indicates that although we have access to these medications and in some cases they can help, they should be used with great discretion (i.e., only given to those who have been diagnosed with attention deficit disorders) because the risk is so high. Lorenzo Duretto (@LDuretto) tweeted a response:

in US u worry about high school [students] who take drugs 2 increase their academic performances and then u wanna do this? Ridiculous!!!

This response was echoed by many others in the comments on the online article. If regular students can be given stimulants to help in school, people are saying, should regular athletes be allowed to have steroids to help their athletic performance?

The article failed to talk about possible causes of the inability to concentrate. Many voices in the comments emphasized that a lack of sleep, lack of exercise, etc. can impact a child’s ability to focus in school. However, we need not group all children who have a difficult time focusing into the same group. Many children do need these medications to function properly mentally, physically, and socially. This point was driven home by Olivia of Buffalo, NY:

As a college student who has struggled with A.D.H.D my entire life this article makes me livid. I use medication because I need it, not only for school but for daily life and that is a major part of the diagnosis that wasn’t mentioned much. Its not just about focusing to get good grades its about your mind functioning differently than other kids and people who do not have the disability. The way A.D.H.D kids and adults arrive at certain answers and solve problems is so different and having to deal with that fact, knowing that you think differently is part of living with A.D.H.D.  …. [A person's] need for medication is not something that should be taken lightly. It is a serious learning disability and what the doctor admits and even the family from the article admits doing makes light of a struggle that so many people go through.

In a society where medications are readily available and can make us seem “better,” let us seriously consider the long-term impacts of using drugs for improper purposes. This is a weighty issue our society is facing, and if we are to make correct decisions in both the policy world and the day-to-day world, we must consider all consequences of our actions.

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