It’s been more than 50 years since Dr. Keith Conners first started his campaign to convince other doctors and parents that the “bad seed” kid may actually suffer a neurological disorder. His message was heard and now he regrets it. He describes today’s millions of diagnoses for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as “a national disaster of dangerous proportions.”

The diagnosis rates are shocking:ADHD pills

  • 15 percent of all American high school kids
  • 1 in 7 children is diagnosed with ADHD by age 18
  • 600,000 total diagnoses in 1990
  • 3.5 million diagnoses in 2013

What may be a true diagnosis in many cases may be an oversold prescription drug in others.

Ads for the amphetamines most commonly prescribed to treat ADHD in children describe turning a troubled and troublesome child into the perfect child. These drugs - Adderall, Concerta, Focalin, Intuniv, Strattera, and Vyvanse - have all triggered multiple reprimands from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for false and misleading advertising and fines of tens of millions of dollars. The FDA sanctions seem to have made little difference in the prescription drug industry.

Often marketed as safer than aspirin, the stimulants are addictive, easy to abuse, and come with significant side effects that include hallucinations, thoughts of suicide, and death. It’s because of these very real risks that they are regulated with opioid drugs that include morphine and oxycodone.

The pharmaceutical companies that make and market ADHD drugs aggressively targeted doctors first, then school administrators. Once federal restrictions were lifted, making drug ads open to public consumption, parents became the next - and most effective - target market. Sales of $1.7 billion in 2002 grew to $9 billion in 2012.

Healthcare plans often don’t include effective coverage for psychiatrists, who are trained to recognize, diagnose, and treat neurological disorders such as ADHD. To keep the revenue stream alive, the pharmaceutical companies are actively training primary-care physicians to diagnose ADHD instead.

There’s no true test for ADHD diagnosis. It’s being diagnosed for children who don’t like to wait their turn, are careless, make poor grades, and have trouble coping with tension within the family. Only asthma tops ADHD as the most frequently diagnosed long-term disorder in children.

Drug makers are now turning to celebrities to sell the public on adult ADHD. They fund studies that suggest ADHD runs in the family. That children never outgrow the diagnosis and need to be medicated forever.

It makes good marketing sense. When a child is diagnosed at a young age as needing these stimulants every day for life, that’s a pretty lucrative revenue stream. When the child’s siblings and parents are diagnosed with the same disorder and prescribed the same daily medication for life, revenues skyrocket.

Psychiatrist Tyrone Williams feels ADHD is being over diagnosed and improperly treated. He suggests a good night’s sleep, on a daily basis, will eliminate most symptoms of ADHD safely and effectively.

Source: Schwarz, Alan. “The Selling of Attention Deficit Disorder.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Dec 14, 2013. Web. Dec 17, 2013.