ADHD Diagnoses May be Rising in the United States

Emily Sherman, Editor

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Between 1997 and 2016, the percentage of children diagnosed with ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) in the U.S. appears to have increased from 6.1 to 10.2 percent.  A myriad of different viewpoints and opinions are being proposed by health professionals, psychologists, and the general public to try and come up with an explanation for the dramatic increase that continues to be on the rise.

A theory developed by doctors and psychologists is simply that the medical field has improved its ability to diagnose ADHD.  With increased research on the disorder, doctors believe that their diagnoses are becoming progressively accurate.  By learning to identify similar symptoms within patients (distractibility, hypersensitivity, forgetfulness), health professionals speculate that they are becoming more knowledgeable about the condition.  Doctors also believe that because the public’s knowledge of the disorder is becoming more extensive, the amount of children being screened is also increasing.  Often, concerned parents may bring their child in for an appointment- but whatever happened to kids being kids?  Aren’t all children a little hyper because of their short attention spans?  It seems possible that the parents of this generation are simply more concerned and protective of their children’s well-being, but this forces society to question whether the amount of children with ADHD is actually increasing- or if it is simply a result of a generation with overly concerned parents.

It is also important to consider that the hyperactivity often seen in young children could be do to the methods in which the U.S. education system handles the structure of the school day.  Amie Bettencourt, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, notes, “The increased rigor of kindergarten is leading to a lot of false identifications of ADHD. This is a time when children are still developing the capacity to sit still. Years ago there was not so much sitting still. Learning was more play and experiential based.”  Due to the strict classroom structure many elementary schools follow, it seems understandable that a group of five-year-olds would rather be running around outside than sitting in a classroom.

Finally, the most controversial aspect of this issue is the speculation that high school students are faking diagnoses of ADHD in order to be prescribed with medicine- which stimulates the mind to hyper-alert levels.  This medication is intended to bring the attention levels of those who have ADHD up to a standard level of brain activity.  The issue arises when students who do not have ADHD “fake” their way into a prescription- making their brain activity excel to superhuman levels.  Since this disorder exists within the brain, without the evidence of outside symptoms, students are ironically finding ways to manipulate the health system.

This issue forces society to question the intensity of the U.S. education system.  Why would so many students turn to prescription drugs to help them in school when they don’t even need it?  This summer, for my AP Language and Composition class, I was required to read the nonfiction work The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids, by Alexandra Robbins.  Reading her work opened my eyes as to how a rigorous and competitive education system can have detrimental effects on students’ health.  The pressure to be superhuman- to get good grades, excel on tests, and manage sports and extracurriculars can be extremely stressful.  In fact, attempting to do all of this myself often leaves me exhausted during the week and sometimes cuts into my time to sleep.  The logic behind students faking ADHD is that with superhuman levels of concentration, the amount of time before “burn out” is extended.  This leaves more time for studying, sports, and activities with a higher level of alertness.  A problem arises when, through the means of increasing one’s attention span, students inadvertently leave adverse effects on their brain and its ability to function properly.

The increase in ADHD diagnoses in the U.S. can be traced back to a multitude of causes.  However, it is imperative for society to consider how the education system can change the way students view school and handle stress.  Additionally, the ability for health institutions to decipher between the legitimate and artificial symptoms of ADHD is an important part in protecting the brain function of developing children.