When I was in elementary school, teachers would write home saying I was a bright kid but had trouble staying in my seat. My eyes would glaze over during tasks. I had a “lack of control.” My classmates would laugh when I raised my hand to ask a question the teacher had answered a sentence ago, and while I pretended to think it was funny too—all part of a joke—I would secretly wonder why I couldn’t just “get” it like my peers did. I didn’t understand why I was different.
Over time, I grew too embarrassed to ask questions, and my grades suffered. When my parents decided to get me professionally tested, the result confirmed their suspicions: I have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The psychiatrist recommended I take stimulant medication, but, like many parents, mine were initially hesitant to accept this option. Every headline they had seen circulating about how Adderall is over-prescribed and potentially harmful for developing brains was likely on their minds, causing doubt. It’s hard to make the choice to spend hundreds of dollars on a treatment accused of causing meth addiction, among other things. However, the psychiatrist was able to assuage these fears and convince my parents of the treatment’s safety, and they eventually accepted a prescription for Adderall.
Taking that one little pill in the mornings had an immediate effect. Suddenly, I could concentrate for longer and remember what had been said more than two minutes prior. Periods of clarity, before a luxury, became common. I stopped interrupting people and started listening more, and the jokes about my memory gradually died out. It was like I had been struggling to breathe my whole life, and Adderall handed me an oxygen mask.
This story isn’t new, and I’m not the first one to tell it. Stimulant therapy’s efficacy in treating the 6.4 million children who suffer from ADHD nationwide is well-documented. Still, it remains a highly controversial treatment, rejected by many in the field. Some claim that ADHD simply doesn’t exist, that it’s just an excuse for undisciplined kids to act out. Others who acknowledge the existence of ADHD argue against using stimulants to treat it because they say the drugs do more harm than good for developing brains. They fret about medications being over-prescribed and taken advantage of by those just trying to get ahead in school, and they feel that ADHD can be treated with more parental attention—“dangerous” psychoactive substances need not enter the picture.
Here are the facts. Research has shown no long-term negative effects of prescription stimulants on the developing brain. Children treated with stimulants are 1.9 times less likely than their non-medicated counterparts to develop substance use disorders later in life and exhibit lower levels of physical aggression. Most importantly, stimulants are also extremely effective at treating the inattention, lack of focus, and impulsivity that are the hallmarks of ADHD.
To those who say that medications are unnecessary, and that children are better off without them, consider this: one out of every two kids with ADHD will face widespread peer rejection. One in three individuals with ADHD will develop depression, and almost one in two will develop anxiety. We are 2.5 times more likely to develop a substance use disorder and a whopping seven times more likely to attempt suicide. This is not just a different way of thinking. It is a treatable mental illness.
Stigmatization of prescription stimulants may be based on myths, but it has very real consequences for the millions who suffer from the disease. Passage of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 put stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin in the Schedule II category. As a result, patients have to bring a new prescription to the pharmacy every 30 days. This is burdensome for those living far away from their psychiatrist, who often have to wait several unmedicated days for the prescription to arrive in the mail.
Unsurprisingly, the effects of this stigma weigh much more heavily on those from lower-income backgrounds. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars are needed to get a professional diagnosis of ADHD, and many health insurance plans won’t cover the price of stimulant therapy. As a result, many people with ADHD cannot access affordable treatment—they cope by themselves.
We need to focus on addressing these issues and not on stigmatizing the children who rely on stimulants to function and the parents who buy their prescriptions. We need to stop supporting costly, unnecessary restrictions that prevent millions from accessing treatment for this debilitating illness. We need to end the pointless controversy over medicating children and start shifting the conversation to how we can improve the solutions. Until we do, millions of people like me will have to continue to endure ADHD, but unlike me, they will not have a way out.
Lucas A. Mitchell '20 is a Psychology concentrator in Pforzheimer House.
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