When searching for answers related to mental health, at times it can feel as if one is looking for a door in a brick wall. The task can become even more difficult when a family or individual embraces a diagnosis that seems to define one’s identity permanently. Far too many know that such mental barriers often are difficult to reframe. These walls are hard to dismantle because they are solid; made of life’s brick, mortar and minutiae. No matter how hard we push, no matter how many cracks and crevices we explore, these walls (often strengthened by personal beliefs) seem void of easily discoverable portals that could provide passage to a better place. I’ve encountered a few of these barriers along my own life’s path.
Much of my time these days is spent working with students, educators and parents navigating the world of early diagnosis, and helping them apply common sense to the mental disorders supposedly connected to children. In my efforts to help millions of kids live a life free from ADHD drugs I meet individuals and families on a regular basis searching for a way to break through such walls. With 10,000 plus toddlers being drugged for ADHD, however, I am beginning to wonder if there is no end to how early the mental health world will feel confident diagnosing a child. “Congrats Mrs. And Mr. Farmington, you are the parents of a new baby boy! He weighs 6 pounds and 8 ounces, and he is ADHD.”
Thankfully the majority of people I work with gain a deeper understanding of how the ADHD diagnosis is a pitiful collection of symptoms that just reflect normal childhood behaviors. When I give talks on my book Debunking ADHD, however, there is always one adult in the crowd that will approach me after to say “but I am ADHD!” It’s as if their brick wall is also sound proof, and muffling the words describing how my efforts specifically are focused on exposing how every child is ADHD if we use today’s diagnostic criteria. Such a simplistic all-encompassing assessment should not be considered capable of being a valid test of abnormal behavior. It’s as if these few adults embracing the ADHD identity missed the part of the talk where I read the symptoms for ADHD and everyone in attendance held their hands up acknowledging that they too had as a child or still have today many if not all of the symptoms of ADHD, the All Do Have Disorder.
Despite my efforts to share the pseudoscience behind the diagnosis and the endless dangers to children that come with the drugs prescribed for ADHD, some parents and educators still feel compelled to insist that their child (or student) really is ADHD and that he needs these drugs to behave normal. While most people I reach come to the conclusion that we should stop drugging kids for acting like kids, there are always others who simply can’t make that change in their personal beliefs. They cannot get passed that wall the pharmaceutical companies and their misguided mental health allies have built pill by pill.
The following story is my recollection of one that a personal mentor in psychology once told. I share it with you because I am often left thinking of it after speaking on ADHD. When it comes to convincing adults that drugging kids for acting like kids should be the last resort we never visit, we have our work cut out for us. Because at times, I worry that for every brick I remove from the walls holding my audience back from breaking through, a billion dollar wing of the pharmaceutical industry has a workforce on the other side putting another brick in its place. Here’s the story…
Once upon a time, a grandfather who was having trouble living on his own, moved into his loving daughter’s home. At first he felt relief to be surrounded by his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren. His family however, with their busy schedules and obsessions to technology, rarely ever spoke to him or even noticed he was in the room. As time passed he began to feel as if he was a ghost; a dead man living in their house. Beyond the aches and pains he felt getting out of bed in the morning, not much seemed to challenge that feeling, and he started to believe through and through that he was already dead. With great concern for his mental well-being, his daughter took him to see a clinical psychologist after he shared his belief with her one morning.
After first consulting with the daughter, the psychologist addressed the grandfather, “So you think you are dead?” “Yes, I am.” said the grandfather. “But we are having a discussion…”, explained the doctor.”That’s because I am dreaming.” “So dead men dream?” asked the doctor. “Yes we do.” “Well how do you explain your experience of sitting in the family room watching television with your daughter and her family last night?” “That’s just my subconscious recalling previous events in my life.” “Can your subconscious recall the day you died?” The grandfather stared into the distance and did not answer.
Due to never having a client express such beliefs before, the doctor decided to switch directions. The doctor asked, “Can I see your hand?” The old man reached out, waved his hand and asked, “I don’t know can you?” The doctor said, “Yes I can see your hand, I meant can I touch your hand?” The doctor grasped the grandfather’s hand and pinched his finger. “Did you feel that?” “Yes I did” answered grandfather. “How do you explain feeling pain as a dead man?” “It’s just a physical memory similar to the aches and pains I feel every morning.” The doctor at this point was starting to panic a bit upon realizing there was no convincing this man he was alive. And then suddenly, he had an idea. He asked the grandfather, “Do you think dead men bleed? Not at the time of death of course, but long after one has been dead. Do you think dead men bleed in the afterlife?” “Of course not doctor, what do you think I am, crazy?”
The doctor goes and gets a sharp sterilized pin, and comes back into the room. Sitting across the table from the grandfather, he pokes the grandfather in the index finger and then applies some pressure. A drop of blood comes out of the grandfather’s finger. The doctor then says,” Well look, you are bleeding! What do you think now?” The grandfather, with a look of shock in his eyes says, “Wow Doc! I was wrong! Dead men DO bleed.”
When someone has their mind made up about their state of being (or their child’s mental health), everything they hear and experience seems to support their beliefs. This is a confirmation bias resistant to common sense. When it comes to convincing adults that their children are normal and not ADHD this is often the case. There is still a lot of unlearning to do.
Unfortunately, a testament to the difficulty of this task is the fact that for decades experts and concerned adults have cautioned parents, educators and mental health professionals about the shortcomings of the ADHD diagnosis and dangers of ADHD drugs. If this was not a lion’s feat, the brave words shared for decades by individuals such as Dr. Fred Baughman, Dr. Richard E. Vatz, Dr. Diane McGuinness, Dr. Peter Breggin and many others would have already changed the course of behavioral interventions for kids exhibiting behaviors associated with ADHD. As Dr. McGuinness wrote in 1989:
“The past 25 years has led to a phenomenon almost unique in history. Methodologically rigorous research…indicates that ADD [attention deficit disorder] and hyperactivity as “syndromes” simply does not exist. We have invented a disease, given it medical sanction, and now must disown it. The major question is how we go about destroying the monster we have created. It is not easy to do this and still save face…”
In 1993 and published in the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Vatz was even more candid, “Attention-deficit disorder (ADD) is no more a disease than is ‘excitability.’ It is a psychiatric, pseudomedical term.”
As a psychologist that focuses his research on child development, I think the symptoms used to diagnose ADHD are symptoms of perfectly normal, albeit slightly annoying, childhood behaviors or developmental delays. ADHD is just a diagnosis of normal; normal childhood challenges that require us adults to put forth more time, effort and patience to navigate through.
Please don’t think I naively thought that showing the public once again how ADHD is basically an invented disorder created by the pharmaceutical companies would be easy or celebrated by all. I understand full well that most parents who drug their child for ADHD did not reach such a decision without high levels of deliberation and deep thought. I can fully understand how accepting a conflicting answer to such a diagnosis is not something that can come without pain, resistance and/or regret. I also suspected that many in the mainstream media and education system would cautiously avoid getting involved by having me share evidence that many before me have tried to bring to the forefront of discussion for decades.
But the mental walls that have been built when it comes to ADHD truly do span and protect the border separating fact from fiction. They are so tall and so thick that many adults can’t see or even hear how those paid by the pharmaceutical companies readily admit to the dangers and long-term ineffectiveness of the ADHD drugs they have built their fortress with. The walls block so many from understanding that the behaviors associated with ADHD are not due to a mental disorder emanating from a child’s sick mind, but instead just a reflection of the normal learning and developmental process we all go through at some level while growing up in social settings that provide a steep learning curve. Why can’t the masses see through the walls that create a major ethical dilemma? Why are so many willing to ignore and avoid the sound evidence telling us why we shouldn’t drug children for ADHD, in exchange for accepting the status quo and continue giving children harmful drugs to make them supposedly behave normal?
To be honest, at times when I think of the Dead Men DO Bleed story, I am not sure if I relate more to the psychologist or the grandfather these days. At times of course I feel like the psychologist trying to convince others that they or their children are not ADHD. At other times I feel as if I am a ghost, speaking and yet no one hears me. But regardless, I’m fairly sure dead men don’t bleed in Heaven, Jannah or whatever afterlife your spiritual beliefs might embrace, and I am 100% confident kids should not be drugged for acting like kids.
Our kids deserve more than a pseudomedical label or some wonder pill that works on a hope and a prayer to make them supposedly behave normal. They deserve a childhood as well as parents and educators that are able to calmly pursue discussions about ADHD. They deserve mentors willing to do whatever it takes to tear down these walls. I hope you will share your thoughts and reflections about this blog, so I can be sure that I am not a ghost and this is not a dream.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.