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The over-diagnosing of ADHD

Written By | Feb 1, 2014

“If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life thinking it’s stupid” –Albert Einstein

WASHINGTON, February 1, 2014—The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, The Psychiatric Times and The American Psychological Association, among many other studies and reports, suggest Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) are both over-diagnosed and medications overprescribed.

The minute a child is diagnosed with a disorder, they buy into it and spend a lifetime believing it. For this reason, a proper and accurate diagnosis based on conclusive available evidence is essential to preventing a child’s improper medication or mistreatment.

A 15 to 20-minute office visit to a primary care physician is generally considered an inadequate basis for accurate diagnosis and a potential lifetime of being labeled as something a child is not.

In the U.S, the number of children being diagnosed with and medicated for ADHD has grown dramatically, raising red flags of alarm. Diagnosis based on heuristics, trial and error, clouded boundaries and rules of thumb in lieu of established diagnostic criteria are becoming commonplace.

In a 2010 study published in The Journal of Health Economics, researchers found that among U.S kindergartners, the older ones were 40 percent more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD and twice as likely to be medicated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that one in five high-school-age boys are diagnosed with ADHD—a 53 percent rise in one decade. James Swanson, a professor of psychiatry at Florida International University and a leading ADHD researcher for the past 20 years, flatly states “there is no way one in five high school boys has ADHD!”

Swanson also declared that drugs prescribed as a result of poor diagnosis cause addiction. Additionally, about 30 percent of these drugs are illegally transferred to other students.

Dr. Ned Hallowell, best-selling author on the subject, originally claimed ADHD drugs are “as safe as aspirin.” Dr. Hallowell now regrets the comparison and has called on others to rally against “slipshod” diagnostic practices.

Many signs shared by ADHD and ADD—such as lack of concentration, impulsiveness, inattention, trouble concentrating and “tuning out”—can be attributed to other sources of causation. The same is true of children displaying remarkable symptoms of motoric restlessness, hyperactivity, easy distraction, quick boredom, non-stop speaking, apparent inability to listen or readily absorb information, fidgeting and inability to sit still.

Studies strongly suggest that given a modern child’s recreational environment combined with media exposure, most children are engaged in time-compressed mini-segments in just about every aspect of their lives. Sound bites, fast video games with dramatic action, fast TV commercials, multi-channeled cable where they can flip from one program to the next in rapid order, all work to reduce a child’s attention span and prevent the child from gathering much information.

There are microwave meals and snacks, weekly new products for dietary consumption and entertainment, all in a rapidly-changing world that floods a child’s mind with the “new” on a constant basis.

Products from food to entertainment and amusement are designed to capture a child’s attention very quickly. However, with the massive amount of marketing directed to children, a child can only focus on so much before moving on to the next “new.”

Children as young as three years old show signs of inattention, short attention span and hyperactivity, simply from such exposure. Perhaps it is no coincidence children as young as three to seven years old now show symptoms of ADHD and ADD, are diagnosed as such, and subsequently medicated.

Additionally, immaturity and slowness in developing expected levels of maturation could undermine growth and not be related to ADHD or ADD. Laziness should also be a consideration.

Currently, there is no hard data regarding the long-term effects of years of taking drugs like Adderall, Ritalin etc. Most current research indicates users do not build up a substantial tolerance to these drugs. However, studies show cardiovascular effects and—lest one forget—these drugs are amphetamines.

Would anyone wish for their child to ingest amphetamines, particularly when the diagnosis is not based on strict criteria? This question is even more important in light of potential comorbidity or concurrent disorders.

Research now suggests that if a child is demonstrating a sustained degree of several of the aforementioned symptoms, before subjecting a child to a lifetime diagnosis of a neurobehavioral mental disorder, consult a mental health professional and give the child a chance to perhaps grow beyond early diagnosis.


Paul Mountjoy

Paul Mountjoy is a Virginia based psychotherapist and writer.