In late October of last year, I wrote a column on the presidential election in which I asked my readers which third party candidate they believed I should cast my vote for. At the time, I had every intention of voting; my absentee ballot was sitting on my desk, waiting to be filled in. Some of my readers might be surprised to learn, then, that I never did vote in the 2012 election. This was not out of protest, or disinterest, but rather carelessness; I missed the deadline to send in my absentee ballot.
This chain of events did not surprise me; I am moderately forgetful, often inattentive to “minor” details like deadlines and neglectful of basic tasks like getting my car serviced. In fact, I recently took three online tests which unanimously concluded that I had anywhere from a mild to moderate attention deficit disorder. These tests may very well have given me an inaccurate diagnosis – and I still do not view myself as “disordered” – but perhaps the average doctor would conclude that I do, in fact, have ADHD; one can only wonder, especially given the increasing rates of ADHD diagnoses in the United States today.
While I was never formally tested for ADHD or put on ADHD medications, a staggering number of children today have been found to have the disorder. The New York Times, analyzing CDC data, recently found that almost 1 in 5 high school boys are diagnosed with ADHD. Girls are diagnosed with less frequency, but still at an alarmingly high rate that has only increased over the years. Roughly two-thirds of the millions of children found to have the disorder are prescribed psychotropic medications like Adderall. These drugs are, from what I understand, quite powerful, occasionally exhibiting side effects ranging from difficulty sleeping to depression.
And here is where the debate begins. The increasing diagnosis of ADHD and the resultant prescription of psychotropic drugs is surely a complex issue with multiple prominent stakeholder groups. Even without taking into account the abuse of these drugs, a topic addressed last spring by the Editorial Board that I chaired, there is the argument over whether children today are more hyperactive and unable to focus, whether doctors (and parents and teachers who send children to doctors) are more likely to medicate children, or whether the home and school environments for today’s youth are more likely to lead to “abnormal” behavior.
Most likely, it is a combination of all three: there is reason to believe that the increasing presence of technology and its ever-shortening stimuli serves to reduce attention spans, although research in this field is still in its infancy. On the second front, the criteria for diagnosing ADHD as established by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders have become more lenient over time, a process no doubt welcomed by the pharmaceutical industry, which stands to gain billions of dollars from selling more drugs. And finally, the average public school today, under the specter of high-stakes testing that emphasizes rote memorization and abolishes high-energy courses like gym and art, fosters a classroom environment that makes children on the ADHD spectrum stand out as “poor” students.
Surely, there are those with ADHD who would have been diagnosed in most eras under the most stringent definitions of the disorder. And medication, for these youth, is often a godsend. But if we are approaching the point where the average boy is being labeled as “disordered,” something is clearly wrong. The loosening of diagnostic standards is one problem; a pediatric neurologist quoted in The New York Times article stated that “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.”
While it is easy to place blame on the medical system, we must remember who is often demanding the ADHD diagnosis and drugs to boot: the parents. But I don’t blame parents either – they are merely looking out for their children’s best interests. Rather, I believe our technophilic system demands too much of our children. Today’s youth are placed in environments that are antithetical to the human condition. While I actually love taking tests, it is wrong that we judge intelligence and merit based on who can fill in the right bubbles – life is about so much more than that. And while we’re at it, perhaps our system demands too much of adults; mundane tasks like paying bills and filing taxes are the proper work of machines, not humans, yet completing these and related actions are all but necessary to be labeled as a functional adult.
Perhaps I am foolish, but I long for the time when children were educated by reading the literary canon or taking on apprenticeships. I long for a time when the average adult did not have to worry about paying off half a dozen credit cards. Such a time, if it ever existed, seems much more compatible with human nature.
But instead we have today’s world in which we define success as our ability to provide answers to predetermined questions and perform dull tasks at the service of the system. Some of us – including many students here – are suited quite well for such a life. The rest of us are labeled as “disordered” and given psychotropic drugs to get with the program. I generally like to end my articles on a positive note, but right now the only words that I can think of are c’est la vie.
Do you share Adam’s pessimism on this topic? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.