As part of their ‘Failing Boys’ series, the Globe and Mail recently ran an article which calls attention to an issue that bedevils parents, teachers, and the medical establishment: has the diagnosis of ADHD led to the medicalization of boyhood, or is there something organically wrong with the brains of boys these days?
The article has a few choice quotes which are worth highlighting.
“prescriptions for Ritalin and other amphetamine-like drugs for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder shot up to 2.9 million in 2009, a jump of more than 55 per cent in four years.”
“ADHD is one of the most commonly diagnosed disorders of childhood, with core features that include an inability to focus, and hyper and impulsive behaviour. Increasingly, it’s seen as a chronic condition that 60 per cent of kids never outgrow and one that experts estimate affects five per cent of children worldwide.”
“some see a system of harried parents, school officials and general practitioners too ready to label rambunctious young males. While boys might be three times more likely than girls to develop ADHD, research suggests they are nine times more likely to be sent for a clinical assessment and five times more likely to be medicated for it.”
“With no blood test or any other biological means to confirm an ADHD case, psychiatrists, psychologists or a general practitioner diagnose children after a clinical assessment or, often, with behavioural reports from parents and teachers.”
Painting the diagnosis of ADHD as part of the growing list of phenomena in which society has medicalized normalcy is nothing new. As is generally the case when medicalization occurs, there is likely to be some degree of veracity to the diagnosis, but, as Peter Conrad has pointed out, once the trifecta of physician endorsement, pharmacological marketing, and consumer acceptance line up together, over-diagnosis is sure to follow, and ADHD seems to be following that trend. That is not to say that there are not young boys (and girls) who have ADHD and need our help – those who are most seriously afflicted certainly do. But the convenience of having a pharmacological ‘quick-fix’ contributes to over-diagnosis, and runs the risk of treating young people with chemicals that alter their brains with unknown long-term consequences.
What is particularly poignant about this discussion is that it arises only days after the death of actress Barbara Billingsley who famously played the role of June Cleaver, mother of Theodore Cleaver, better known as ‘the Beaver’ in the popular TV show Leave it to Beaver. In part famous for its depiction of the now mythical 1950’s nuclear family, the show centred around the antics of young Theodore who was into pretty much everything. It is hard to imagine that the Beaver would not be diagnosed as having ADHD today and medicated to smooth out his rough edges.
Link to article in the Globe and Mail article
Link to Peter Conrad’s book The Medicalization of Society