Why am I not surprised by the latest statistics showing a more than 50 per cent rise in NHS prescriptions of drugs to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) over the past six years? Because society has become increasingly drawn towards using medication as a substitute for authoritative teaching and child-rearing. In fact, the diagnosis of ADHD is so vague and flexible that it’s a wonder the number of Ritalin tablets being dished out is not going up even faster.
What is driving the steady expansion of the diagnosis of ADHD among children is not the discovery of a hitherto unknown medical condition, but the cultural redefinition of some of the normal problems of childhood. Virtually every aspect of a child’s behaviour can now be diagnosed as a medical issue.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has argued that doctors should evaluate children from age four onwards for signs such as fidgeting, excessive talking, reluctance to concentrate and abandoning homework or chores. Apparently such things are symptoms of ADHD. Indeed, according to these experts, ADHD is characterised by many of the traits that would, in the absence of a medical definition, be interpreted as altogether normal bad behaviour: inability to concentrate, lack of application, unruliness.
Although most sensible people will be appalled by the continuous increase in the diagnosis of ADHD – now applied to almost one in five American boys of high-school age – it is likely that the medicalisation of childhood will continue to gain institutional support, on both sides of the Atlantic.
The main reason why children’s behaviour has become a target for pharmacological intervention is the difficulty that adults have in exercising authority over the lives of young people. Parents have always found it tricky to deal with their toddler’s defiance or their adolescent’s rebellion. Today, however, these age-old problems have become far more difficult to manage, because of the tendency to devalue adult and parental authority. Some parents, embarrassed by their difficulties in socialising their offspring, are relieved to be informed that the problem they face is a medical one.
Within schools, there is also a noticeable demand for a medical diagnosis for the naughty child. Tackling unruly classroom behaviour through popping a pill is an option that some institutions prefer to the exercise of authoritative teaching. Hence the evidence, in recent years, of parents being given an ultimatum by their children’s school – either start giving the child Ritalin or take them elsewhere.
The reliance on medicine to tackle the problem of socialisation has led to an ADHD pandemic. Yet what kids need from adults is not a diagnosis but guidance, inspiration and understanding.
Frank Furedi is a professor of sociology and the author of ‘Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age’