ADD Deja Vu

On Sunday, February 3, the front page of the The New York Times featured some brilliant reporting by Alan Schwarz about the misuse and abuse of the prescription drug Adderall, commonly prescribed for Attention Deficit Disorder. Schwartz tells the gripping and tragic story of one young man, Richard Fee, who, as the headline puts it, “drowned in a stream of prescriptions.”

If you haven’t read it, I urge you to online and do so as soon as you can. It’s a salutary tale of medical indifference and–to my eyes anyway–malpractice. And it’s a reminder of our culture’s dependence on pills and quick fixes.

It’s not until the last paragraph that the organization known as CHADD is mentioned, but the very mention of that organization brought back a wave of unpleasant memories. You see, we investigated ADD back in 1995, in a documentary for PBS called “ADD: A Dubious Diagnosis?” (You can watch it here.) In that film we followed the money trail and documented very clearly how the makers of Ritalin (that era’s Adderall) bought off CHADD with covert donations, and how CHADD did all it could to endorse and recommend Ritalin. CHADD even infiltrated the US Department of Education and managed to appear in some government Public Service Announcements, with CHADD leaders posing as ordinary parents.

Schwarz’s final paragraph suggests that CHADD has not changed its stripes. Apparently CHADD is still doing business in the same old way, downplaying the dangers of these powerful prescription medications.

In our film, we documented how CHADD tried to have methylphenidate reclassified to make it easier to get, even thought at the time the USA was consuming nearly all of the world’s supply of the drug. They’re still trying, apparently.

We slowed down the ADD bandwagon for a while, but greed, opportunism, naivete and our eagerness to believe in a quick fix are back in business. The number of kids now being diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Disorder continues to grow, and the drug dealers (legal ones) continue to laugh all the way to the bank.

There’s no doubt that the condition known as ADD or ADHD is real. But I have not a shred of doubt that the current epidemic is man-made.

Every parent or concerned adult ought to ask a few simple questions before medicating (or continuing to medicate) a child.

  • Who made the diagnosis?
  • Did you get a reliable second or third opinion?
  • Does the condition somehow disappear in the summer or over extended breaks from school?
  • Is it possible that you are searching for an explanation for your child not being the overachiever that you and/or your spouse may be?
  • And if you are involved with CHADD, can you examine the organization’s books to see where its money comes from?

I believe our society suffers from a condition that is more serious than Attention Deficit Disorder. I call it Affection Deficit Disorder, the new ADD. How else can you explain the richest country in the world allowing so many of her children to grow up in poverty? What other explanation is there for our failing to provide universal preschool for three- and four-year olds?


11 Responses to “ADD Deja Vu”

  1. Andrea Grenadier 15. Feb, 2013 at 4:12 pm #

    John, I thought of you and “Dubious Diagnosis” as soon as I saw that last paragraph, and although the article was both fascinating and heartbreaking, the lede was buried way at the bottom. I look forward to a robust expose one day (hopefully soon) about CHADD and their links to the pharmaceutical companies. That would make an obvious companion piece to the article about Richard Fee.

  2. Tim Ito 15. Feb, 2013 at 4:15 pm #

    John,
    A great person to talk to about this issue is Thomas Armstrong, who wrote one of the bestselling education books of all time, Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom. He also has a new book out and has been quite focused on the topic of special needs students. His new book is Neurodiversity in the Classroom: http://www.ascd.org/Publications/Books/Overview/Neurodiversity-in-the-Classroom.aspx is quite insightful.

  3. Miriam 15. Feb, 2013 at 6:03 pm #

    Thank you, John. Yes I read that horrific NY Times story. So sad and unfortunately, in some awful way, predicatable. We overmedicate young people.

    Affection Deficit Disorder? Interesting. I agree… the issues are often in the adults.

    In terms of the ‘old ADD/ADHD, I’ve often thought that if I were a clinician (I am not)….and a parent came to me with a child who might have ADD/ADHD, I would suggest that they go home for a month and have dinners as a family every night without a TV or other intrusions, that the family would have a conversation together, that electronics would be off for times the child reads and does homework, that TV watching would be nonexistent or very limited, that the child would go to bed early with good food in stomach, etc. For a month. Day in and day out… Would the parent return? Would he/she still seek the same diagnosis? I wonder.

    • John Merrow 15. Feb, 2013 at 7:03 pm #

      What wonderful (UN)common sense!!

    • P hirsch 16. Feb, 2013 at 4:13 pm #

      For approxiamately ten years we had no cable or Internet in our home. I work full time
      But cook every night for my family. My one son was tested by a respected doctor
      And diagnosed with ADD. He took Ritalin for five years. We have always been loving
      And close. My son coul not even sit through a class without his meds.
      He no longer needs them today. At 21 he is a volunteer fireman and a junior in college.
      It’s easy to take an arm chair “goog old days” kind of judgement. Unless you have experience you just don’t know what you are seeing.

      • P Hirsch 21. Feb, 2013 at 6:19 am #

        Please pardon my grammatical errors. That was my first text from a new IPhone which I am just learning to use. Thank you

  4. Lynn Green 15. Feb, 2013 at 7:15 pm #

    ADD is one of the most misunderstood,misconceptialized and most misdiagnosed conditions there is.However when it exists it is real and one of the most disabling conditions there is.
    The debate about over medication is also real.
    However as a parent of two succesful young adults with ADD I want to assure your audience this condition is very real and when monitored well medication works very effectively.
    People with ADD have it all the time not only in school.The stress and rigidity of the classroom may appear to make the conditiion worse but most individuals who find medication effective find they need their prescription all the time.
    When ill informed people question the use of medication for the use of this properly diagnosed condition I use the analogy of an individual with diabetes who needs their insulin. How often do we find the media questioning the use of diabetics with insulin?
    I also regret that there is a suggestion that this condition is related to bad parenting.For many of us parents who have had children diagnosed with ADD we worked hard to be good parents and also struggled very hard to provide every possible opportunity for our children to become succesful and happy young adults and we take great offense to this suggestion.
    I agree it is important to get a good diagnosis by a well respected practitioner and if medication is chosen it needs to be well managed.
    It is a shame that CHAD got caught up in this controversary but that happened a long time ago. I am very involved with the Learning Disability Association and I know how hard it is to get funding for programs so there was a time when drug companies were willing to fund us for conferences,etc but we were never put in a situation where we promoted any particular type of medication. We did use the funding to help educate the public about ADD and various treatment methods.
    I hope my comments help clarify some of the confusion around ADD.

  5. Frank Gould 16. Feb, 2013 at 7:54 pm #

    I have not read the Times article, and do not need to for knowledge of ADD. I taught 3rd grade for twenty-three years and recognize the symptoms. I suspect that I would have been diagnosed with ADD if that condition existed when I was in elementary school. I feel fortunate that it did not, but my own experience with school helped me understand what was going on with my eight year olds. As I matured as a teacher I did everything I could to not recommend to my student’s parents that they have their student tested for a “learning disability.” All too often the physician’s diagnosis of ADD or ADHD is based on the observation and opinion of the student’s teacher who is having a difficult time with the student’s behavior in class. There is little, as far as I understand, the a physician can use physically to diagnose ADD. However, one of those drugs will calm down even a student who is not ADD, which is often what a parent and a teacher want.

    I had a student once in my class who was the opposite of ADD. It was like he was in a stupor all the time. His doctor put him on Ritalin and it worked. He was in the class. But, after a few years he took himself of the drug. It was changing him too much. After that he struggled again, but he got through high school, and more important, he did it as himself.

    The big problem with this emphasis on using drugs to calm down our students is the structure in our classrooms and standardized testing. There is not enough flexibility in instruction and learn to have all personalities fit in. If our schools created classrooms in which every student was permitted to learn as his or her own pace in his or her own learning style then ADD/ADHD, in most cases might not be a problem. When our classes are in the style of the Ford assembly line all students won’t fit. Schools need more flexibility. Teachers need to be able to find a way to include all students in their own learning. Current curriculum, based on passing standardized test, does not allow teachers to fit in all students. Drugs, in some situations, do.

    • Larry Tietz 17. Feb, 2013 at 9:38 am #

      I don’t think an IEP for every child is too much to ask for. AKOM (all kinds of minds) is just one approach. Yes, it is overwhelming to think of creating IEPs for every child, but once that kind of attitude becomes systemic, it will become second nature.

      Treating every child as an individual will make the system better for all in the long run, and at lower cost.

      • Frank Gould 18. Feb, 2013 at 9:52 am #

        Leave the P off of IEP. Individualized Education is enough. Adults creating a plan/curriculum is not the best way to educate the child.

  6. Larry Tietz 17. Feb, 2013 at 9:42 am #

    My takeway from the times article is that there is a lot malpractice going on. With what the medical profession knows today it is unconscionable that this person was still being prescribed the meds.

    There is an excellent documentary on the life of Andres Torres, Gigante. A baseball player with ADD.

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