Paying the Wrong Kind of Attention to ADHD

by James Wiley, MD, FAAP — @adddoc

An email alerted me of a study concerning ADHD medication.  Since I prescribe it every day and take it myself, I’m always interested.

When I clicked on the link I was directed to a July 15 article with this headline:  “Do ADHD Medications Boost Substance Abuse Risk?”  The article was reporting on a June 2016 study from the University of Michigan published the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

In brief, the study concluded that if stimulant medication treatment is started earlier (before age 9) and continued, it actually cuts the rate of substance abuse in half.  Put another way, treatment cuts the risk back down to the rate for kids that do not have ADHD.

You might think that the media would have noticed a study from a respected university publishing in a major medical journal on a topic that affects ten percent of Americans. They haven’t.  They either aren’t paying attention or they aren’t willing to be perceived as highlighting even one of the significant benefits of stimulant medication.  Make no mistake; this is a landmark study that re-affirms previous work suggesting the same conclusion.  But society and the media seem interested only in perpetuating the myth of “over-medicating” kids in increasing numbers as well as emphasizing the recognized but avoidable side effects of stimulants.  While this may help sell copy, it doesn’t help families like mine who struggle with ADHD every day because it keeps them afraid of reaching out for help.

ADHD is the most common neuro-genetic disorder of childhood.  It is associated with significant complications and mortality.  In addition to doubling the risk of substance abuse, it increases the risk of school failure and under performance, accidents, divorce, premature death, anxiety, depression, suicide and incarceration.  All of these adverse outcomes have been shown to improve when ADHD is treated with stimulant medication.

Why are we not being proactive? Why are we are not advocating screening and early intervention?  ADHD meets all the criteria of a medical disorder that we should look for proactively.  It is common, can have bad outcomes, and is very treatable.

It’s time we pay the right kind of attention to ADHD. 

So back to the HealthDay article and its headline.  If it had been an article on an asthma medication helping kids improve their fitness it would have read something like, “New Asthma Medication Improves Fitness in Kids.”  But because it is about ADHD medication it was posed as a question that suggests the opposite of the study’s finding.

We need to watch our language and stop this type of slant that stigmatizes mental illness in general and ADHD in particular.