High energy and even hyperactivity are both recognized as normal aspects of childhood, but there comes a point where they cross a line into something much more serious. I have witnessed firsthand the impacts that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder—commonly known as ADHD—can have on a child’s development and happiness. While ADHD is a significant disorder particularly for its impact on children, our society’s approach to treatment is similarly troubling.
You may personally know a child afflicted with ADHD, and chances are that that child is being treated for the disorder with medication alone. Although most research does admittedly show benefits to treating ADHD in children with medication, doing so comes with many downsides, including side-effects and the lack of focus on long-term improvement. Oftentimes, the debilitating side effects of treating ADHD with medication alone can serve to outweigh the benefits.
The most commonly prescribed and demonstrably effective medication for ADHD is a combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine, commonly found under the brand name Adderall, which can bring with it rather debilitating side effects. It has proven more effective than one of the most common alternatives, methylphenidate, in decreasing behavioral symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity (Manos et al., 1999, p. 818). However, various side effects—some of them with severe and long-term implications—have been reported in studies of the drug.
Those side effects have included insomnia, irritability, headaches, feelings of unhappiness and depression, and anxiety (Manos et al., 1999, p. 818). Coupling the potential for experiencing these side effects with the potential health risks of long-term use of drugs like Adderall, the need to find better long-term treatments becomes apparent.
Stimulants like Adderall that are used to treat children with ADHD are not suited for long-term use and long-term treatment options are typically ignored in favor of the short-term benefits the drugs can provide. There is currently a significant lack of research on the safety and effectiveness in long-term use of stimulants like Adderall, and the potential effects that they have been shown to have on the circulatory system and on mental health. The long-term benefit-to-risk ratio is a concern primarily for the health risks associated with general long-term use and abuse of stimulants (McGough et al., 2005, p. 534). While focus on short-term improvement and symptom relief for children suffering from ADHD can and often should be achieved with the use of pharmaceuticals, there must be more effort placed into long-term solutions and alternatives that pose less risks. Some children may be able to tolerate drugs like Adderall for a significant period of time without any significant side effects or health impacts, although the risks to their health increase the longer they remain reliant on the drugs alone (McGough et al., 2005, p. 536). Considering the lack of research into and the potential for risks associated with long-term stimulant use, we owe it to our children to find a better answer to treating ADHD.
Our society’s current focus on medication as the ideal treatment for disorders like ADHD speaks volumes to our cultural problem of overmedication. The modern prevalence of reluctance among parents, teachers, and even physicians to comprehensively evaluate a child before diagnosing them with ADHD and prescribing medication as treatment is itself highly indicative of that cultural problem. U.S. health officials have even grown alarmed at the rate of young children being treated with ADHD medication and have begun urging parents to attempt other potential solutions, such as behavior therapy, first (Cha, 2016). This culture of overmedication also extends far beyond ADHD, and is a noteworthy causal factor in the ongoing opioid crisis currently facing the United States. That public health crisis has finally brought some attention towards our society’s culture of overmedication and has brought physicians to evaluate their opioid prescription practices (Kliff, 2017). Our society’s current problems with overmedication only serve to further the notion that our currently accepted measures of dealing with children diagnosed with ADHD are misguided.
As a society, we must do better for our children, and particularly for those that are suffering through a debilitating behavioral disorder like ADHD. Continuing to emphasize the use of potentially harmful drugs as the sole treatment method for ADHD is the wrong path to continue on, and we must move forward in search of more comprehensive research efforts into safer and long-term treatments. Our children are our society’s most precious asset, and making sure that they are able to grow into healthy, functional, and happy adults should be our top priority. Changing our approach to treating ADHD should therefore be among our top priorities to ensuring that we meet that goal going forward.