The number of school children diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a staggering 5 Million. But I reject the notion that the ADHD epidemic is a crisis of mass psychological malfunctioning of American kids. Rather, I believe it is the inability of schools to break out of their rigid, time-honored way of teaching kids: graded classrooms, standardized curriculum, limited “best practices” of teaching, and ever-present expectations for students to conform to traditional classroom norms for behavior (most often reinforced by white middle class teachers and administrators). And I believe it is a crisis manufactured by the pharmaceutical industry.  

As British author and educator Sir Ken Robinson aptly stated, “If you sit kids down, hour after hour, doing low-grade clerical work, don’t be surprised if they start to fidget. Children are not, for the most part, suffering from a psychological condition. They’re suffering from childhood.”  

Classroom learning that is dominated by the subjects of literacy and math, commonly taught through seat-bound, individual learning modalities (no group work, no collaborative learning) inevitably create successful results for some students, i.e., the “smart kids,” the kids with an apparent SURPLUS of attention. The others who cannot learn in this way, or whose talents lie in the arts, music, interactive learning, or mechanical/hands-on challenges, are then labeled as slow, failures, hyperactive, or misfits—students who seem have a DEFICIT of attention.  

Once standard disciplinary interventions fail to correct inappropriate or self-distracting behavior, medication often becomes the last resort. Teachers and parents want attentive students who don’t cause trouble. Family physicians don’t want over-worried parents with over-anxious kids. Big Pharma is all too happy to sell the pharmaceuticals of choice (Ritalin, Adderall), reaping annual profits of over $10 Billion. Talk about collusion! 

In a December 14, 2013 report by the New York Times, Dr. Keith Conners, Professor Emeritus at Duke University, commented on the rise of ADHD diagnoses in the past two decades: “The numbers make it look like an epidemic. Well, it’s not. It’s preposterous. This is a concoction to justify the giving out of medication at unprecedented and unjustifiable levels.” The NY Times went on to conclude: “The rise of A.D.H.D. diagnoses and prescriptions for stimulants over the years coincided with a remarkably successful two-decade campaign by pharmaceutical companies to publicize the syndrome and promote the pills to doctors, educators and parents. With the children’s market booming, the industry is now employing similar marketing techniques as it focuses on adult A.D.H.D., which could become even more profitable.” 

I do believe that some children benefit from temporary medication and behavioral modification protocols. But we should be deeply concerned about children who take methamphetamine-like stimulants over long periods of time. Is it any wonder that our adult population has come to believe anxiety and depression are “chemical imbalances” that can be remedied simply by taking a pill?  

The amount of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications, and opioids taken daily by adults in the United States is astounding (10-15%). This should tell us at least two obvious things: 1) our tolerance in society for psychological and emotional pain is very low; 2) that legal corporations and illegal cartels reap gigantic profits from our misery and from our proclivity to addiction.  

Radically curtailing the profligate dispensing of ADHD medication to our children will not solve the larger drug epidemic in society. But it is the best place to start. And in doing so, we need schools to reconsider their purpose and their pedagogy. We really do need schools to meet the needs of all students, and not have all students vainly try to meet academic standards established by politicians, pedants, and the “non-profit” College Board (annual profit of $62 Million). We also need more schools and teachers who can meet the needs of students with diverse talents and intelligences.  

Every one of us was a child who struggled in school or knew someone who could behave well enough to succeed. We know what stigma and isolation they suffered, which neither drug nor school discipline could remedy. It is now our chance as adults to be advocates for what we know best in ourselves and in others. It is our responsibility to help end an epidemic whose victims are children, caused by outdated school methods and the unhealthy alliance of unscrupulous physicians and corporate profiteers.