Medicated Students — What If Schools, Not Kids, Are The Problem?

The percent of children estimated to have ADHD has changed over time and while its measurement can vary, the American Psychiatric Association states in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5, 2013) that 5% of children have ADHD. Other studies in the US have estimated higher rates in community samples.

One former public school student, Cade Summers, told John Stossel that he hated the effect of the drugs — that it was like he had been “lobotomized.”

Cade’s parents took him off the “attention deficit” drugs and sent him to other schools. But Cade hated them all. “I would come home and I would sometimes just cry,” Cade tells Stossel.

Then he heard of a new type of school in Austin, Texas. It promised to let kids discuss ideas, and to do real-world work.

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Nicole Beurkens says even in the best of circumstances – when medication helps reduce symptoms – it does not solve the underlying problems.

“The reality is that many school-age children take medication that does very little to resolve their symptoms. There are more children than ever before on prescription psychiatric medications, and yet we have an ever-increasing number of students experiencing difficulties with learning, socialization, and behavior in school. If medication was the solution, these problems would have been solved long ago.”

It is too often the case that educators ask parents to consider medication without ensuring that appropriate educational supports are in place, Beurkens writes. According to the CDC, the numbers are staggering.

In 2016:

  • Approximately 9.4% of children 2-17 years of age (6.1 million) had ever been diagnosed with ADHD, according to parent report in 2016. [Read key findings]
    • Ages 2-5: Approximately 388,000 children
    • Ages 6-11: Approximately 2.4 million children
    • Ages 12-17: Approximately 3.3 million children

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Parent report on ADHD diagnosis in previous years:

  • The percent of children 4-17 years of age ever diagnosed with ADHD had previously increased, from 7.8% in 2003 to 9.5% in 2007 and to 11.0% in 2011-12. [Read key findings]
  • The number of young children (ages 2-5) who had ADHD at the time of the survey increased by more than 50% from the 2007-2008 survey to the 2011-12 survey. [Read key findings]

How many children with ADHD have another disorder?

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) often occurs with other disorders and conditions.

Parent report:

In 2016, among U.S. children ages 2-17 years:

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Parent report:

In 2016:

  • The percent of all children 2-17 years of age in the U.S. taking ADHD medication was 5.2%. [Read articleExternal]
  • Among children with ADHD, 62% were taking ADHD medication. [Read articleExternal]
    • Ages 2-5: 18%
    • Ages 6-11:  69%
    • Ages 12-17: 62%
  • The percent of children 2-17 years of age with ADHD who received behavioral treatment was 47%. [Read articleExternal]
    • Ages 2-5: 60%
    • Ages 6-11:  51%
    • Ages 12-17: 42%
  • Among children 2-17 years of age with current ADHD, about 77% were receiving treatment. [Read articleExternal] Of these children:
    • About 30% were treated with medication alone.
    • About 15% received behavioral treatment alone.
    • About 32% children with ADHD received both medication treatment and behavioral treatment,
    • About 23% children with ADHD were receiving neither medication treatment nor behavioral treatment.

Some studies suggest that rates of medication use in minority groups are increasing. This may reflect a reduced stigma associated with ADHD among these groups, and a growing acceptance of medication treatment. Both professionals, and non-professionals, are concerned about the ease and frequency of prescribing powerful drugs to children. Concerns center on the qualifications and expertise of the prescribing provider; the proper age to begin medication; and, the overall rise of ADHD diagnoses. It may also reflect a more global concern about the rapid growth and influence of pharmaceutical companies in today’s healthcare industry (aka, ‘Big Pharma’).

Initially, stimulant medication was thought to have few side effects. Research seemed to support this. However, more recent studies discuss the possibility that stimulants may not be good for children. One study provides a Black Box Warning (Nichols, 2004)) about antidepressants and a risk of suicide as the teen begins to feel a little better.

Public schools aren’t allowed to require any student to take ADHD medication. The special education law IDEA specifically covers medications that are controlled substances, and ADHD medication falls into that group.

The law is very clear. Public schools (along with districts and states) may not require any student, whether or not they get special education services, to take this class of medications.

That means schools can’t make students take medication in order to attend. They also can’t make it a requirement for getting an evaluation and special education services.

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