The medicalization of boyhood

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


3 thoughts on “The medicalization of boyhood

  1. “Painting the diagnosis of ADHD as part of the growing list of phenomena in which society has medicalized normalcy is nothing new”

    I see what you mean, that the diagnosis of ADHD is based on social constructs of what “normal” behavior is like. Medicalizing normalcy seems to imply that ADHD kids on adderall are mentally the same as normal kids. I don’t think that’s the case. We assume that adderall makes children think and learn like the other children because they are acting like the other children, calm and behaved. But what if the effect of stimulants on an ADHD brain is something new for brain chemistry all together, which I believe it is. Maybe it doesn’t matter if it’s called a disorder or not. It doesn’t matter what the long term effects are, because who is to judge what mental states are bad or good? Maybe what we know as “medicalizing normalcy” is us just experimenting on ourselves. We see the opportunity to further the mental capacities of humanity and we take it. Its a similar fundamental argument as for legally regulating cognitive enhancers.

  2. I recently listened to a woman recite her medical history and those of her four children. She has been diagnosed with ADHD, as have two of her oldest. The third has ADD. The fourth, her youngest, “hasn’t been diagnosed yet because he’s only two.” In other words, she is confident that the youngest will get his diagnosis in due course. I have no doubt whatsoever that he will. It would be interesting to do a follow-up on her kids, some twenty years from now, and see how many of them are passing the family totem to the next generation.

    This is no longer about medicalization as ordinary disease-mongering. This is medicalization as the Invasion of the Meme Hatchers. Impulsive or composed, you will be assimilated. It really is true what the sociologists of medicine save been saying all along, that health care is the principle source of meaning and individual self-realization in our time.

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