Deficit Disaster" by John McGinnis, Assistant
Features Editor of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, and published in the Wall
Street Journal on September 18, 1997.
[note from Teresa: although the author of this
article is perhaps a bit too anti-ADD, I think he brings up a very important and rarely
discussed topic: "learned helplessness."]
In 1992, when Tim Griffin was three years old, his mother,
Sharon, began to worry that he was "hyper," that he "never settled
down." A teacher at Tim's preschool recommended that the be checked for attention
deficit disorder. Mrs. Griffin took Tim to a nearby psychiatric clinic, and sure enough,
he was diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, a variant of ADD. The
doctors prescribed Tim five milligrams of Ritalin twice a day.
Thus Tim joined millions of other children who share that
diagnosis and that prescription. A visit to the Griffins' home in northwest Indiana
reveals that today, at age eight, Tim is by no means a normal child - he's clearly
afflicted with what one psychologist who's observed him calls "learned
helplessness." But, tragically, this psychologist traces Tim's problem not to his
"disorder," but rather to his treatment.
That the line between cure and disease should be so blurry
is no surprise, since there is no objective test for ADD or ADHD. In fact, despite
countless attempts, no one has ever demonstrated that either disorder exists. But harried
teachers and counselors have learned to recommend an ADD diagnosis to parents in order to
get their more rambunctious students on Ritalin, an easy way to quiet them down. U.S.
Ritalin prescriptions have increased to 11.3 million in 1996, up nearly 400% since 1990.
Many doctors and parents are increasingly alarmed about
this trend. For starter, Ritalin is a chemical cousin of methamphetamine, and its
pharmacological effects and addiction patterns are similar to cocaine's. And no study has
ever demonstrated that taking Ritalin can cause any lasting behavioral or educational
benefits in ADD patients. Yet two national advocacy groups, the National Attention Deficit
Disorder Association and Children and Adults With Attention Deficit Disorder, have grown
large and powerful by feeding parents' concerns about this phantom disease.
What's gone largely unexamined, however, is the effect that
the ADD diagnosis and "therapy" has on these kids' lives. Tim's experienced
demonstrates the dangers of this approach. Over the years, his Ritalin dosage was
gradually increased to 60 milligrams a day from 10 milligrams. The drug was prescribed by
doctors who agreed with Mrs. Griffin's conviction that Tim had to be medicated, rather
than disciplined, in response to his "extreme whininess." Not all doctors share
this view, but Mrs. Griffin, a nurse herself, is so devoted to the ADD diagnosis that she
has sought out sympathetic physicians. When the family moved to Crown Point last year, for
instance, Mrs. Griffin chose a new pediatrician because, she says, "she just had a
lot of the philosophies that I had."
One of these "philosophies" was a willingness to
disregard a warning in the Physicians Desk Reference that Ritalin users should stop taking
the medication during regular "drug holidays" in order to avoid such side
effects as insomnia and loss of appetite. Mrs. Griffin says Tim "never experienced a
drug holiday, and I've not requested one, because of the severity of the condition. I
can't imagine what life would be like if he had a drug holiday."
But perhaps because Tim didn't take any drug holidays, he
has experienced one of Ritalin's many side effects, what the Physicians Desk Reference
terms "toxic psychosis." One day in April 1994, after he'd been taking 60
milligrams of Ritalin per day for about seven months, Tim ran at his mother as she talked
on the phone, jumped on her and screamed, "The bugs are going to get me!"
Hundreds of bugs were falling on him from the ceiling, he told her. Tim had such
hallucinations three times, moving Mrs. Griffin to find a new pediatrician who would
reduce Tim's Ritalin dosage gradually to 25 milligrams per day. The hallucinations stopped
and his behavior improved.
But that didn't shake the Griffin's devotion to Ritalin,
nor their belief that his ADHD meant that he should be sheltered from even the smallest of
life's trials. Soon after starting first grade, Tim developed a fear of large, open
spaces. "He just doesn't do well in those situation," Mrs. Griffin says. He
cried so much at the door to the school's cafeteria, and refused to go in so vehemently,
that his mother eagerly arranged for him to eat his lunch in the school's office with the
secretaries. Without the ADD diagnosis, a boy Tim's age would simply be told that we all
have to do things we don't like - even eat in the school cafeteria.
The hold that the ADD label has on Tim and his mother
became clearer yet when Tim was in second grade this past year. Mrs. Griffin asked his
teacher to write her a note each day describing his behavior. On some days, Mrs. griffin
recalls, the note said that "Tim really, really tries, but he just can't help
himself." Other days it said, "Clearly his medication wasn't working well
today." Mrs. Griffin explains: "That's the result of the ADD, that's just the
way he is - he's loud, he moves around." In other words, if Tim is behaving, his
parents and teachers believe his Ritalin's working; if he's not behaving, the ADD is at
work. Either way, the medication or the "disorder" is responsible; Tim's just
along for the ride.
That's a corrosive lesson for a little boy to learn. James
A. Tucker, a former director of Pennsylvania's Bureau of Special Education, is a
psychologist at Michigan's Andrews University who's observed Tim (and spoke about him with
the Griffins' permission). "My professional opinion," he says, "is that Tim
is a brilliant little boy with a highly creative mind in a highly structured environment,
and that creates a tension that's frustrating for him. I would suspect that a lot of the
medication and medical experiences have led Tim to the belief that there's something
wrong. His brain is active enough to rise above that, but also to use it as a way of
manipulating his environment."
Indeed, there's plenty of evidence of Tim's braininess. As
a first-grader, Tim say a White House jigsaw puzzle in a store, and quickly became
interested in the presidents' lives. Soon he knew their names in order, their causes of
death, their wives' names, and much detailed information about the White house, in June
1995, a local television station news show featured Tim's prodigious recall, calling him a
Getting Off the Hook
So why have Tim's mother and teachers remained convinced
that he's plagued by an inability to pay attention? Tim has learned that he doesn't have
to behave, or do anything else that he'd rather not - the lesson of a therapeutic culture
that doctors and parents have allowed to run wild. Says Mr. Tucker: "Kids say to
themselves, 'I have this problem, which I really don't believe, but it gets me off the
hook...If my temper tantrum is viewed as something I can't help, I'll learn very quickly
that I can get away without doing things that I don't want to do, because you think that I
have this disease.' We see this all the time."
In short, ADD kids are learning an early lesson in the
mores of 1990s America: Don't take responsibility for your own conduct; instead, declare
that you're in the grip of uncontrollable impulses, seek professional help, and start
making excuses. Mrs. Griffin may be satisfied with the result - she's happy to shelter her
son from all but the most innocuous aspects of life, and she thinks that Tim would be
uncontrollable without Ritalin. But it makes an observer wonder: Aren't parents, teachers
and doctors shirking responsibility for raising kids by substituting a phony therapeutic
approach for old-fashioned discipline?