ADHD Diagnosis on the Rise in Students

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recently released data that suggests 11 percent of students are currently being diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The New York Times reports that this diagnosis has increased dramatically over the last 10 years, and doctors are concerned that ADHD is being over-diagnosed, and that medication to treat the disorder is over-prescribed.

Of the 6.4 million students that have been diagnosed with ADHD at some point, two-thirds take prescription medication, like Ritalin or Adderall, for their ADHD symptoms. While medication can dramatically improve focus, many of the prescriptions are addictive and can have other adverse side effects.

“Those are astronomical numbers,” says Dr. William Graf, a Yale professor and pediatric neurologist, “I’m floored. Mild symptoms are being diagnosed so readily, which goes well beyond the disorder and beyond the zone of ambiguity to pure enhancement of children who are otherwise healthy.”

The Rise of “Smart Drugs”

Ritalin, Adderall and other stimulants have earned their “smart drugs” nickname for their ability to increase students’ concentration and cognitive focus. Education Week reports that Yale pediatric neurologists recently released a position statement expressing concern about the rise in prescription stimulants coinciding with the rise in ADHD diagnoses.

With the possible over-diagnosis of ADHD, physicians are concerned about the ethical implications of over-prescribing stimulants, also known as nootropics, especially in regard to children. Children’s learning abilities and brains are still in development, and so far there is a lack of conclusive research on the long-term effects of these medications. Additionally troubling is the fact that many students who are not prescribed stimulants or diagnosed with ADHD are taking these medications illegally as a way of improving concentration.

Since families feel like they can trust their doctors, Dr. Graf, the Yale professor, warns pediatric physicians to be vigilant.

“Doctors caring for children and teens have a professional obligation to always protect the best interests of the child, to protect vulnerable populations, and to prevent the misuse of medication,” he says. “The practice of prescribing these drugs ... for healthy students is not justifiable.”


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