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One fascinating concomitant to a 2007 study of the incidence of ADHD in Northern Finnish adolescents is that although ADHD may be roughly as common in Finland as in the US, the ratio of Finns to Americans receiving medication for it is about 1:12. Finland’s adolescents are famously successful in their studies, evidently without anything close to the extent of medication suffered by American children. What is going on?

A deeply troubling answer is suggested by the statistic[1] that American “boys who were born in December [and hence the youngest in their class] were 30 percent more likely to receive a diagnosis of ADHD than boys born in January” and that “boys were 41 percent more likely to be given a prescription for medication to treat ADHD if they were born in December than if they were born in January.” It is possible that mere stupidity allows immaturity to be confused with disease, but Stephen Hinshaw, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, has discovered that ADHD diagnoses can vary widely according to demographics and education policy. He notes that No Child Left Behind gives a strong incentive to diagnose ADHD because it allows extra time for tests to be taken and, in some districts, exemption of such tests from the reporting requirement. Even more troubling is a report that students are receiving prescriptions for Schedule II controlled substances  (with a “high potential for abuse” and the possibility of “severe psychological or physiological dependence”) simply to enable them to do better on their schoolwork and standardized tests regardless of medical condition. One of the mental health professionals who study this phenomenon notes that Americans “as a society have been unwilling to invest in very effective nonpharmacological interventions for these children and their families.” Thus, drugs may be turning into a kind of cheap and perhaps profitable quick fix, as it were.

My colleague the psychology teacher tells me in highly expressive language that there is no need or excuse for this extensive overmedication of children. Coincidentally, the figure he gives of kids who he thinks actually need medication is roughly the same as the figure of those who receive it—in Finland. This is not the same as saying that “ADHD Does Not Exist”; rather, it is saying that we are making a problem larger, not solving it.

P.S.:  A study was presented Friday by a CDC official showing that more than ten thousand toddlers age 2 – 3 years are receiving ADHD medication, including Schedule II controlled substances, even though, as the story drily notes, “impulsivity and hyperactivity are developmentally appropriate for toddlers.”

[1] To be found in Esquire’s April 2014 issue in an article about ADHD, but Esquire’s web page is repellent, so I am providing no link.

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