A few days ago, I found out that in the UK, parents may soon be forced to make their children take ADHD medication. Those refusing to comply face the threat of jail time for "denying treatment."
Treatment, in this case, is defined as doping children up on amphetamines - often against their will and the will of their parents. This isn't treatment for a life-threatening disease - or, in fact, a real disease at all.
The Test: Summer, 1996
The game begins in a dark room. The technology is a decade out of date - a monochrome monitor, flashing instructions in some shade of orange that should never have existed. It is not a complex game. A large rectangle in the same improbable orange appears on the screen. Then, a smaller black square appears in the rectangle at regular intervals. Sometimes it appears near the bottom of the rectangle; sometimes it appears close to the top.
All I have is a button in my hand, the button to push when it appears at the top. This, I think, is not a very exciting game. I wish, vaguely, that I could review it. Pong was more exciting. So I slack. Why should I care about where the square shows up next? I try to anticipate it, pressing the button almost before the square appears. I'm bored and getting sleepier by the minute, but I play and play and play - not because I want to, because I must.
Where's this arcade from hell? It's my neurologist's office. The game is no game at all, but a diagnostic called a TOVA test. And it is this test that will lead to my ADD diagnosis, a diagnosis that will lead to an "Individualized Education Plan," a series of medications with no benefits and tremendous side effects, and years of trying to figure out why being different was wrong.
The Criteria: Pay Attention, Even When You're Bored!
The TOVA test decides that if you press the button too soon, you must be "impulsive," that if you don't press it soon enough or tune out, you're "inattentive" - various things like that. Why are these things important? Well, ADD has diagnostic criteria that sound a bit like this: not paying attention to repetitive tasks, being easily distracted, fidgeting, not wanting to remain seated, not wanting to wait one's own turn.
But what do those mean? Is the child becoming restless and not doing schoolwork because he absolutely cannot focus no matter what, or is it because he is bored to death? Is he jumping out of his seat to look out the window because of an uncontrollable impulse, or because he figures it's more interesting?
The chief complaint against AD(H)D is that it prevents children from learning in the school environment. In the contemporary school environment, with those diagnostic criteria, it's not hard to see why the diagnosis has become incredibly common. Schools today are often places that stifle creativity and emphasize rote learning and repetitive tasks. Are children who are creative and uninterested in the bland offerings of school to blame for wanting more?
Psychiatry for schoolchildren today has gone from finding things that are truly bad and life-damaging to declaring that any student who isn't docile and willing to accept what is said by a teacher has a "disorder" of some kind.
We are also, in contemporary society, extremely opposed to allowing children to be somewhere other than in a chronological peer group. Many of the "ADD" children I have seen are ones who should not, under any circumstances, be in the grade they are in. Some don't have enough knowledge, and therefore can't follow along and would rather do something else. Others have too much, and all that is being taught bores them.
But those are not the things asked about. No ADD questionnaire says "is your child incredibly bored with his/her studies?" or "why do you think Johnny can't pay attention?" - instead, they concentrate only on surface-level symptoms without looking for a real root cause.
The Field: Bloodletting in the 21st Century
This problem is not confined to that of ADD. Psychiatry today is an absolute mess, and the new "epidemics" of depression, "anxiety disorders," and ADD show that something must be wrong.
Imagine you're in a nice restaurant, and you're eating a really good meal. You take a big bite - ok, maybe too big, because you start choking. Uh-oh. But it's not a problem - there's a doctor at the very next table! He rushes over to you.
"Ahhh, yes," he says. "I see you're coughing, out of breath. That's probably asthma. Here, have an inhaler." You smile weakly, sputter, and die.
No one would stand for that in a doctor curing our bodies - but it's exactly what we let happen with the doctors who try to cure our minds. They look at the most obvious, external problems, and they say all with those symptoms have the same problem.
Why does this stand? The answer is simple: We don't know what the hell we're doing. Often, we don't know real root causes. Psychiatry today is where physical medicine was in the seventeenth century - we are poised for major breakthroughs, but we aren't there yet. So instead, we do a lot of bloodletting and a lot of witch-doctoring, making halfhearted guesses at what problems are caused by.
Still, psychiatry insists that it has the answer. Note how many more people are diagnosed with disorders as soon as there's a medicine to treat at least one or two of the symptoms. The epidemics of ADD and depression did not start until there were drugs readily available for them. It seems, looking at the data, that the increasing number of cases is directly caused by availability of medicines.
As soon as there's an available medicine that treats a particularly damaging symptom, psychiatrists leap on it and broaden its application. Ritalin would make anyone better able to concentrate on a particular task, so when the doctors notice, oh, hey, these people with much less severe problems can be helped by it, too!
Yet using medicines in these less severe cases deny a very simple fact. Declaring that ADD is such a broad disorder diminishes the fact that memory and attention span can be taught. Instead of working on the problem for a permanent fix, a medicine becomes the quick easy alternative - and one that gets doctors kickbacks from drug companies for every prescription.
The Answer: Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down
But just because Prozac and Ritalin are the best things we have so far for "depression" and "ADD" doesn't mean that we should be using them - especially not as broadly as we are now. I'm sure everyone today would agree that bloodletting (though in the context of the time it made sense) did more harm than good.
Have you been diagnosed with ADD or depression - or even certain "autistic spectrum" disorders (which are a topic for another day)? Don't let witch doctoring get to you. Look at yourself carefully. What are the reasons behind your symptoms? Are they entirely uncontrollable (in which case medicine may be warranted) or are there deeper roots?
Don't take current psychiatric opinion at face value. Remember, they only have a few broad medical remedies to cover an immense variety of issues - and when all you've got is a hammer, everything - and everyone - looks like a nail.