Are Pills a Solution to School Struggles?

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There's been much written about college students who pop ADHD pills to help them study, or even moms looking for focus. But today's story in The New York Times puts the spotlight on doctors who prescribe pills to kids who are struggling in school — and who don't necessarily have ADHD. Alan Schwarz writes:

"I don't have a whole lot of choice," said Dr. Anderson, a pediatrician for many poor families in Cherokee County, north of Atlanta. "We've decided as a society that it's too expensive to modify the kid's environment. So we have to modify the kid." Dr. Anderson is one of the more outspoken proponents of an idea that is gaining interest among some physicians. They are prescribing stimulants to struggling students in schools starved of extra money — not to treat A.D.H.D., necessarily, but to boost their academic performance…Dr. Anderson’s instinct, he said, is that of a "social justice thinker" who is "evening the scales a little bit." … Because their families can rarely afford behavior-based therapies like tutoring and family counseling, he said, medication becomes the most reliable and pragmatic way to redirect the student toward success. "People who are getting A's and B's, I won't give it to them," he said.

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The costs of the practice are hidden, other doctors suggest. Medicaid often covers the cost of the drug for low-income patients, so parents and schools pay nothing. But long-term effects of the drug are not yet understood — and it's addictive enough to be classified as a Schedule II Controlled Substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration, Schwarz points out.

"I'm a pediatrician and a child psychiatrist, and I deal with ADHD on a daily basis," reads the first comment on the story, written by someone identified as Ana from Kentucky. "I get where this physician is coming from. It's beyond frustrating, trying to get schools and parents to alter the child's environment to make it more learning-friendly. They either can't or won't put in the time and money (for the schools, it's more won't), so what are we left with? However, using these medications as a crutch is beyond dangerous. I have never prescribed ADHD medications to a child who didn't meet the criteria for it. The concerns for dependence are valid, as are the dangers of illegal diversion, particularly in low-income areas where drug problems tend to be worse."

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The American Academy of Pediatrics has established guidelines for doctors to follow when diagnosing ADHD. But Schwarz points to a 2010 study in the Journal of Attention Disorders that found that 20 percent of doctors did not follow that protocol.

Some are hoping that the article sparks conversation on the topic, before popping pills for a brain boost becomes as common as performance-enhancing drugs among professional athletes.

Photo: iStockPhoto

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