According to a report, there has been a dramatic rise in children misusing and overdosing on ADHD medications. I happened to see that report a day after I read another study revealing an increased risk for obesity and diabetes in kids who take ADHD meds. This is not to be confused with the recent research showing that ADHD drugs could be linked to brittle bones. These must all be added, of course, to the cacophony of already known side effects, including insomnia, irritability, decreased appetite, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
Maybe this is why a majority of kids diagnosed with ADHD wind up developing other mental illnesses as they grow older. Pharmaceutical companies cite that latter detail as proof of the biological basis of ADHD. I think it is much easier to see it as proof of the pharmacological basis for the mysterious rise in mental illnesses across America. Drug companies and the psychiatric industry have so far gotten almost 20 percent of the country onto psychiatric drugs. Many of these drugs cause suicidal thoughts, anxiety, and depression. Meanwhile, a lot of Americans are having suicidal thoughts, anxiety, and depression. One need not be a detective to notice a potential causal relationship here.
The psychiatric industry has set out to catalog and medicalize virtually every human behavior, emotion, inclination, temptation, and personality trait. It would seem, as many leading mental health experts have warned, that soon nobody in America will be considered normal. Indeed, you wonder where the drug companies and psychiatrists get their idea for “normal” behavior, and “normal” brains, and “normal” emotions, considering they so rarely come across a behavior, brain, or emotion they consider normal.
But nowhere is this tendency to medicalize the human condition more apparent, or more dangerous, than with children. As most people know, there has been an astounding rise in ADHD diagnoses over the last several years. Somewhere around ten percent of all children in the country have been labeled with this alleged disorder, and the label is being stuck on kids at earlier and earlier ages. We are now told that kids as young as three years old can be diagnosed ADHD. New medical guidelines recommend psychiatric drugs for kids starting at four if their “symptoms” are “debilitating.” A third of kids with ADHD are diagnosed before the age of six. Doctors will assure parents that the drugs are safe and will cause no long term damage to their children, but, at best, we don’t know whether that is actually true or not. There is plenty of reason to believe that the drugs will alter your child’s brain for years to come.
And on what basis have we taken this incredible step, as a society, to drug into oblivion what used to be considered common (even charming, even crucial) childhood characteristics? After all, any experienced parent will recognize the list of “ADHD symptoms” as the most normal characteristics in the world:
-In constant motion
-Squirms and fidgets
-Makes careless mistakes
-Often loses things
-Does not seem to listen
-Does not finish tasks
Frankly, I would be more concerned about a child who doesn’t exhibit these “symptoms.” So, how can we know when normal childhood behaviors may be a manifestation of mental illness? It is quite easy to know when your liver, or kidney, or heart are malfunctioning. But, with ADHD (and so many other mental illnesses), pediatricians and psychiatrists claim to have identified a malfunction of the whole human person. It is non-controversial to look at a diseased liver and say, “A liver shouldn’t do that.” But doctors are now looking at physically healthy children and saying, “This entire person shouldn’t do that.”
How? On what basis?
Well, the National Institute of Mental Health offers a clue (emphasis mine):
People who have ADHD have combinations of these symptoms:
-Overlook or miss details, make careless mistakes in schoolwork, at work, or during other activities
-Fail to not follow through on instructions, fail to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace, or start tasks but quickly lose focus and get easily sidetracked
-Avoid or dislike tasks that require sustained mental effort, such as schoolwork or homework, or for teens and older adults, preparing reports, completing forms, or reviewing lengthy papers
-Lose things necessary for tasks or activities, such as school supplies, pencils, books, tools, wallets, keys, paperwork, eyeglasses, and cell phones
The Mayo Clinic puts it this way:
In general, a child shouldn’t receive a diagnosis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder unless the core symptoms of ADHD start early in life — before age 12 — and create significant problems at home and at school on an ongoing basis.
According to the medical community, a child’s personality becomes diseased at the precise moment that his personality interferes with his schooling. This is odd, isn’t it? Physical diseases aren’t judged this way. If you go to the doctor because you think you have diabetes, he won’t ask: “Well, is the diabetes causing problems at home or school?” Diabetes is diabetes no matter how convenient or inconvenient it may be to you or those around you. Diabetes is diabetes at school. Diabetes is diabetes at home. Diabetes is diabetes even when you’re alone in the forest. But ADHD may not be ADHD in the forest. ADHD is only ADHD when it is a nuisance.
This diagnostic criteria is rather peculiar, especially because advocates for ADHD drugs will claim that the disorder can be located in the brain. If it can be located in the brain, why is it diagnosed with a personality survey? Has anyone ever stopped to ask that question?
Now, it may be true that you can find certain neurological similarities among certain people who have been diagnosed with ADHD. You can also find neurological similarities among people with similar dispositions like enthusiasm and altruism. You can find neurological similarities among optimists and among pessimists. But that does not prove that these similarities cause optimism, or enthusiasm, or “hyperactivity” in children. You could look at the brain scan of a man grieving for his dead wife and see his grief reflected in his brain. You could also see his happiness at the birth of a child. You could even see the calm, meditative joy he finds in prayer. But that does not prove that the chemical reactions in his brain are causing his grief, his joy, his closeness with God. We know the opposite is true. His brain is a reflection of the real cause. It is not the cause itself.
Of course, if you take an entirely materialistic view of the human person — which, catastrophically, many psychiatrists do — then you must believe that everything he feels, everything he thinks, all of his traits, his characteristics, his flaws, his sins, his desires, his goals, his love, his joy, his despair, and so on, are all just material phenomena. The mind is an illusion in that case. You are just your brain and nothing more. If, on the other hand, you factor in the soul, and free will, and the uniqueness of each human person who is created by a Divine Force, it becomes clear that the mind exists, and it drives the brain much more than the brain drives it.
But even if we put all of this aside — and I don’t see how you really can put it aside, because this chicken or egg problem lies at the very heart of the entire psychiatry industry and everything we think about mental illness — but even if you do, and even if you accept just for a moment that brain chemistry determines everything about a person, that still wouldn’t prove that any particular personality, like the ADHD personality, is disordered. It doesn’t prove, in other words, that a person isn’t supposed to be that way.
We have decided that kids aren’t supposed to be that way. We have decreed it from on high, like gods, and then set out to chemically eliminate every sort of human disposition that gets in the way of our societal goals. But this is subjective. And arbitrary. And horrific. It is not scientific. It is a philosophical judgment. A really bad philosophical judgment.
We have determined philosophically that a child shouldn’t always act like a child. Or at least he shouldn’t act too much like a child. (And who decides what qualifies as too much? What science can demonstrate the too-muchness of a certain trait? Who draws that line? On what authority?) I take the opposite view. And I have the entirety of humanity on my side, up until the last century or so. Up until everyone, including Christians, decided to adopt Freud’s radically materialist view of the human person. Up until we chose to accept as Gospel literally everything the drug companies and psychiatrists tell us about ourselves and our children.
I submit this counter suggestion: a child is supposed to be a child, and act like one. If the schools cannot handle kids without drugging millions of them, then the schools are disordered. The real illness can be found in an educational system which requires children, starting at a very young age, to sit still for seven hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year, and regurgitate often very useless information onto various forms and sheets and Scantrons. A child is not sick if he struggles in that dull, claustrophobic environment. The environment is sick. We are sick for expecting children to be robots. The child’s “ADHD” is no more the fault of brain chemistry than the grieving man’s grief is the fault of brain chemistry. It is natural to be sad when your wife dies. It is natural to be bored, fidgety, and inattentive when you’re chained to a desk doing busywork.
We are drugging our kids because they are kids. We have made childhood itself into an illness. The results of this decision has been disastrous. And it will only get worse if we don’t change.