When I started my practice as a child therapist in 1988, I had barely heard of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or ADHD. The diagnosis had arrived on the scene a year earlier, in the revised third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental disorders (DSM-III-R). Despite its codification in the DSM, at the time ADHD was not widely discussed among child therapists, let alone parents, teachers and pediatricians. Until the middle of the 1990’s, not one mother or father asked me if their child had ADD or ADHD. If their child’s behavior changed, parents assumed that something was worrying or stressing their child. They came to me to discover the source of the stress.
I view childhood problems from a family systems and child development point of view. Behavioral problems associated with ADHD, such as inattention or hyperactivity, are signs that something is wrong in a child’s life: either extreme trauma like abuse or poverty, or something more typical, like a lack of discipline or a difficult family transition. I’ve seen cases of a child changing personality overnight—from angelic to hyperactive and aggressive—as a response to a parent’s illness or injury.
Of course not every misbehavior was rooted in a troubling situation at home. In those days, some degree of naughtiness and wildness was expected in children, especially in boys. Impulsive, distracted kids who occasionally rebelled against the authority of adults were considered naughty but normal. Nobody would have suggested that Dennis the Menace or Beaver cleaver had a mental disorder that required medication. A teaspoon of discipline, not a dose of psychiatric medication, was the cure for naughty children. Most people thought that the only “disease’ that afflicted kids like that was childhood.
By 2012, things had radically changed. 11 percent of American children had been diagnosed with ADHD and two thirds of them were taking methylphenidates or amphetamines. Almost every child who came to my office had been sent by their school to be evaluated for ADHD. Some were already medicated. One seven-year-old girl had been prescribed the anti psychotic drug Risperdal when the more typical ADHD drugs hadn’t been effective. By this time, I couldn’t help thinking that child psychiatry and pediatrics were going insane. The girl’s inattentiveness and impulsiveness were resolved with a few sessions of family therapy.
I began to research ADHD in other countries and found that the ADHD epidemic that was sweeping across the United States was not meeting with the same success in Europe. In Finland, for example, only 0.01 percent of children are diagnosed with ADHD and medicated. In France the number is less than 1 percent. Of course, I ran into studies claiming a higher rate of ADHD in France and other countries; however, a little research on those studies indicated that they were conducted by doctors with financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry. So I ignored them. Instead, I began reading the work of independent researchers on the topic of ADHD such as Professor François Gonon at the University of Bordeaux and Stanford University Professor John Ioannidis.
In March, 2012, I wrote an article called “Why French Kids don’t have ADHD” in Psychology Today. The article struck a nerve. As of today, more than 9 million people have read the article. Inspired by reader’s interest and support, I wrote A Disease called Childhood: Why ADHD Became an American Epidemic, which will be published this month (March 24, 2015).
In the book, I tell the story of how Big Pharma, hand-in-glove with Big Psychiatry, created the ADHD epidemic by focusing solely on symptoms and ignoring the true causes of childhood problems. By diagnosing and medicating a child for symptoms alone, doctors silence the child’s story which in many cases is a cry for help. I also dissect the so-called “scientific” studies that claim ADHD is caused by a brain dysfunction and that stimulant drugs correct the dysfunction. As you will see, these studies do not hold up to rigorous scrutiny, nor does the claim that ADHD can be “seen” by brain imaging.
Finally, I offer non-drug solutions to empower parents to help a child who is hyperactive, impulsive, or struggling at school. These solutions are based on my 25 years of experience working with thousands of children and families. One reviewer has called A Disease Called Childhood “part manifesto and part advice manual.” I think that’s an accurate description.
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.