As my grades slipped and my behavior worsened in 5th and 6th grades, I got to meet with a number of doctors and psychiatric professionals and was ultimately diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and prescribed methylphenidate—commonly known as Ritalin. For several years, the drug was part of my daily routine and it was, indeed, pretty effective. While on Ritalin, I had a much easier time focusing in school.
I stopped taking the drug by some time in 8th or 9th grade because I became frustrated with its side effects, particularly a feeling that it hampered my creativity and changed my personality. Eventually I was able to find a happy-medium somewhere between intent focus and freewheeling daydreams (and between A’s and D’s on my report cards). I was reminded of this chapter of my life when I read on CNN.com about a young girl who stopped taking the drug on her own initiative for basically the same reasons I did.
To this day, I believe that ADHD is over-diagnosed and Ritalin is over-prescribed even in legitimate cases of ADHD. I’m not the only one with this opinion. The vast majority of supposed ADHD cases—including, I believe, my own—are merely a manifestation of creativity and intelligence. Being easily bored in boring situations isn’t a disorder.
Kids with average and above-average intelligence will find their minds constantly wandering to more interesting subjects, especially when faced with the condescending, repetitious, mind-numbing coursework in our lackluster public schools. I learned what a noun was in 2nd or 3rd grade. When they taught me what a noun was again in 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grades, I quite logically focused my attention on anything else that I possibly could. Maybe the kids who find this kind of repetitious triviality interesting are the ones suffering from a mental disorder.
Having said that, there are people out there with a debilitating inability to focus, even on interesting subjects. Based on my own anecdotal experience, I’d guess that maybe 5-10 percent of people diagnosed with ADHD have a true, serious mental disorder worthy of treatment and medication. Even in these cases, behavioral therapy and counseling should always come first with medication added to the mix only if it proves necessary. The ‘throw medicine at it’ attitude is a shortcut often used by doctors who, for whatever reason, don’t want to invest the time in a proper solution to the underlying problems. With mental disorders especially, medication is not a magic bullet.
Perhaps the best thing we can do to reduce the impact of ADHD would be to make our public school curricula worthy of students’ attention. I have long advocated a simple three-track system:
- Put the above-average kids in a challenging, interesting track that eliminates all the repetition and busywork. This track would provide a Bachelor’s Degree equivalent by the 12th grade.
- Put the average kids in a similar track that moves at a less advanced pace and provides an Associate Degree equivalent by the 12th grade.
- Put the below-average kids in basically the same system we have today.
The majority of our kids are capable of far exceeding the low expectations we have of them. The underlying disorder for most kids diagnosed with ADHD is not in their head, but in their schools. The Ritalin might mask the symptoms by making it easier for students to focus on drivel, but it can never even address the actual problem. We need to fix our schools.