Just Say Yes to Ritalin!

By Diller, Lawrence H. | The Human Life Review, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Just Say Yes to Ritalin!


Diller, Lawrence H., The Human Life Review


[This article first appeared in Salon.com, http://www.Salon.com. An online version remains in the Salon archives. Reprinted with permission. Dr. Diller, the author of Running on Ritalin: A Physician Reflects on Children, Society, and Performance in a Pill, practices behavioral pediatrics in Walnut Creek, California.]

Public school administrators, long the enthusiastic adherents of a "Just Say No!" policy on drugs use, appear to have a new motto for the parents of certain tiny soldiers in the war on drugs: "Medicate or Else!" It is a new and troubling twist in the psychiatric drugs saga, in which public schools have begun to issue ultimatums to parents of hard-to-handle kids, saying they will not allow students to attend conventional classes unless they are medicated. In the most extreme cases, parents unwilling to give their kids drugs are being reported by their schools to local offices of Child Protective Services, the implication being that by withholding drugs, the parents are guilty of neglect.

At least two families with children in schools near Albany, N.Y., recently were reported by school officials to local CPS offices when the parents decided, independently, to stop giving their children medication for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. (The parents of one student pulled him from school; the others decided to put their boy back on medication so that he could continue at his school.)

Meanwhile, class-action lawsuits were filed earlier this month in federal courts in California and New Jersey, alleging that Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp., the manufacturer of Ritalin, and the American Psychiatric Association had conspired to create and expand the market for the drug, the best known of the stimulant medications that include the amphetamines Adderall and Dexedrine. The suit appears to be much like another lawsuit brought against Novartis in Texas earlier this year.

As a doctor with a practice in behavioral pediatrics-and one who prescribes Ritalin for children-I am alarmed by the widespread and knee-jerk reliance on pharmaceuticals by educators, who do not always explore fully the other options available to deal with learning and behavioral problems in their classrooms. Issues of medicine aside, these cases represent a direct challenge to the rights of parents to make choices for their children and still enjoy access to the public education they want for them-without medication. These policies also demonstrate a disquieting belief on the part of educated adults that bad behavior and under-performance in school should be interpreted as medical disorders that must be treated with drugs.

Unfortunately, I know from the experience of evaluation and treating more than 2,500 children for problems of behavior and school performance that these cases represent only a handful of the millions of Americans who have received pressure from school personnel to seek a "medical evaluation" for a child-teacher-speak for "Get your kid on Ritalin."

Most often, evaluations are driven by genuine concerns first raised by a teacher or school psychologist. But too frequently the children are sent to me without even a cursory educational screening for learning problems. With a 700 percent increase in the use of Ritalin since 1990, parents have been repeatedly told that their kids probably have ADHD and that Ritalin is the treatment of choice. More and more often, the parents who buck this trend are being told they must put their children in special restricted classrooms or teach them at home.

Patrick and Sarah McCormack (not their real names) came to my office in a panic last year because a school wanted them to medicate their 7-year-old son. Sarah tearfully explained that the principal and psychologist at Sammy's school in an upscale Bay Area town were absolutely clear that the first-grader should be on Ritalin. An outside private psychologist who had previously tested Sammy did not find any learning problems but concluded that he had ADHD and was defiant of authority. …

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