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Medicating Our Children to Nowhere

Societal pressure is leading more parents and schools to medicate kids. When is enough enough?
 
 
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“Kay” has a distinct memory of being sent to a psychiatrist when the troubles in school first started. After a momentary exchange with the doctor, Kay was left to sit in silence, while the psychiatrist addressed the adults in the room, instead, favoring “rigid conformation [and] inappropriate psychiatric medications” over listening to Kay’s actual problems.

Like many students in the United States, Kay had run afoul of a system where classroom conformity trumps individuality, and where students are being medicated into compliance rather than being properly evaluated. As Alan Schwartz recently noted in the New York Times, there’s been a troubling rise in the use of psychiatric medications in children, and not all of this use is entirely appropriate. Schwartz points to rising rates of ADD and ADHD, two common learning disabilities often treated with medication, as one reason why such drugs are more commonly used. But there are other critical issues at play: as Dr. Michael Anderson points out in Schwartz’s article, “We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid [to fit the classroom]”—increasingly, through pharmacological means. And a third factor, the national crisis in school funding, has helped create a perfect storm when it comes to the over medication of young Americans.

Whether it’s low-income children being medicated into compliance to compensate for rising class sizes, limited time for individualized instruction and scant opportunities for extensive interventions, or wealthy students being encouraged to take medications to improve their performance, children across the socioeconomic spectrum are now routinely taking psychiatric medications to get ready for school. Some of these drugs come with serious long-term side effects -- especially when used inappropriately -- and the rise in their use illustrates just how profoundly the desire for conformity and performance, at any cost, has taken root in our society.

Psychiatric Medications as Performance Boosters

Welcome to the 21st-century rabbit hole of psychiatric medications. Stimulants and other drugs originally intended to help people with significant learning challenges are increasingly being abused, with prescriptions for drugs like Adderall and Ritalin markedly on the rise. Now more than ever, active children are being prescribed medications to make them less boisterous, while shy or withdrawn children may be put on medications to make them more outdoing.

The Rocafort family has their daughter on ADHD medication even though she doesn’t have a learning disability, because her personality was, as they described it, “a little blah.” What, exactly, constituted a blah personality wasn’t defined, but what is clear is that we’re living in times where if you don’t like your child’s personality there’s a quick and ready solution: just chemically modify her until she becomes the person you want her to be.

The Rocaforts aren’t the only ones seeking a chemical fix for whatever ails their children. In wealthy communities, parents may seek ADHD medications as effective attitude and academic performance boosters, as parent Bronwen Hrustka noted in a New York Times opinion piece published late this summer. In these kinds of communities, medications are sometimes used to give children an edge, accelerating their development to make them more competitive in everything from coursework to SAT scores. But the long-term societal impact of all this acceleration may be more significant that many parents are willing to acknowledge. As Hrustka notes, we’re now “juicing kids for school,” creating a generation of relatively privileged and pharmacologically enhanced “superkids” -- while leaving those with legitimate learning disabilities behind.

Crisis in School Funding

It’s not just wealthy parents contributing to the increase use of psychiatric drugs in children. On the lower-income end of the scale, other pressures are at work. It's worth noting that as ADHD and ADD diagnosis rates rise, school funding is dropping. This puts immense pressure on teachers and school districts, which find themselves faced with less disability training and funding for special programs, larger classroom sizes and more demands from parents who are growing aware of medical options. In addition, schools have become ever more factory-like, with children expected to sit still for extended periods of time, absorb information quickly and comply rapidly with orders from instructors and staff – often an impossible set of tasks for children at varying developmental stages.