Global Rise in ADHD Diagnoses: Medicine or Marketing?


The dramatic rise in ADHD spreading from the United States to the rest of the world is more an “economic and cultural plague” than it is a medical plague, said Brandeis University professor Peter Conrad in a press release accompanying a research article he co-authored for the journal Social Science and Medicine. The paper examined the growth of ADHD in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy and Brazil.

The two Brandeis sociologist co-authors found that, in the UK, ADHD prevalence in children grew from less than one percent in the 1990s to about five percent today, while in Germany stimulant prescriptions have also multiplied five times. In Italy, France and Brazil, diagnoses have also been growing, though less quickly.

The press release summarized the reasons the authors gave for these developments: “Drug companies are effective lobbyists, and have spurred some countries to relax marketing restrictions on stimulants. Psychoanalytic treatment with talk therapy is giving way to biological psychiatry — treating psychological problems with drugs. More European and South American psychologists and psychiatrists are adopting the American-based Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) standards, which are broader and have a lower threshold for diagnosing ADHD. Vocal ADHD advocacy groups work closely with drug companies to promote pharmaceutical treatment.”

The researchers also ascribed blame to the increasing presence of self-diagnosis checklists on the internet. “These checklists turn all kinds of different behaviors into medical problems,” Conrad said in the press release. “The checklists don’t distinguish what is part of the human condition and what is a disease.”

(Abstract) The impending globalization of ADHD: Notes on the expansion and growth of a medicalized disorder (Conrad, Peter and Bergey, Meredith R. Social Science & Medicine. December 2014. Doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2014.10.019)

Global surge in ADHD diagnosis has more to do with marketing than medicine, expert suggests (Brandeis University Press Release on ScienceDaily, November 18, 2014)