Jerome Kagan, one of Harvard University’s dominant psychologists is making quite the rounds on the internet. In a 2012 interview, he shared a very controversial opinion regarding Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder — he believes it doesn’t exist. If you’d like to read his entire interview here, feel free, but let me spoil it for you: He believes we are over-medicating our children and ADHD, an invented disorder, could be dealt with through tutoring and paying more attention to our children.
Should I have started with the disclaimer that my oldest son is diagnosed with ADHD? Probably. I think it matters because my point of view in raising a child with ADHD verses a psychologist who merely studies them may garner different results.
With that said, I do agree with quite a bit the good doctor stated in his interview. For instance, when asked about the difference in numbers between mentally ill children (aka kids with some sort of mental disorder attached to them) now and in the 1960s, Dr. Kagan replied:
“We have a 7-year-old child who is bored in school and disrupts classes. Back then, he was called lazy. Today, he is said to suffer from ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). That’s why the numbers have soared.”
However, he then goes on to say he believes ADHD to be an invented mental disorder.
“That’s correct; it is an invention. Every child who’s not doing well in school is sent to see a pediatrician, and the pediatrician says: “It’s ADHD; here’s Ritalin.” In fact, 90 percent of these 5.4 million kids don’t have an abnormal dopamine metabolism. The problem is, if a drug is available to doctors, they’ll make the corresponding diagnosis.”
Here’s where we disagree a bit. I completely believe our human race, as a whole, to be over medicated. I believe there have been man-made inventions which are preferred for instant reward. Headache? Pain reliever. Sore muscles? Muscle relaxer. Heart Burn? Antacid. You get the idea. I also agree these “issues” are symptoms to something greater; more often than not, we don’t want to take time in discovering the cause of our symptoms–we just want the problem fixed. Now.
Essentially Dr. Kagan is saying this is exactly what happens with ADHD. He believes that doctors and pharmaceutical companies drive prescriptions. And they may.
My doctor didn’t drive me to medicate my son.
In fact, my doctor preferred to try everything else before meds. Once on medication, he strongly advocated for the lowest possible dose.
Additionally, we spent many times in the office where our doc made sure it was very clear to my son that his meds would not solve all of his issues in school.
This doesn’t sound like a doctor being courted by a pharmaceutical company. And my monthly budget certainly didn’t want to add meds to the shopping list.
Are there families and children that are victim to greedy doctors and drug companies? Sadly, I believe there are. But for Dr. Kagan to make such a blanket statement regarding any and all children with this diagnosis is, well, dangerous.
Luckily he is just one doctor. One believer. One man. Forgive me if adding Harvard to the end of his name doesn’t impress me much.
Let me introduce you to Dr. Amen. The first thing I loved about Dr. Amen is he deals with disorders in children within his extended family (nephew) and his own daughters. I beg of you to watch the video below from its starting point to minute 37:15–about 5 minutes.
This man has been in the trenches and watched, lived with and loved children who have “abnormal” brain function 24 hours a day. This is a man whose opinion I value.
In watching many of his lectures, my biggest realization has been this: My ADHD son is not mentally ill. I will not refer to him as having a mental disorder or brain disorder. What he does have is a brain that works differently than majority of humans. Does this mean he’s abnormal? It does not. This means that instead of having blue eyes, he has brown. Instead of having freckles, he doesn’t have any. It means he functions differently from you and me. Does everyone love studying frogs in the rain forest? Nope. Does loving to do that make them abnormal? Heck no. And maybe this is what Dr. Kagan is trying to say…but his wording simply doesn’t sit right with me. Rather than saying ADHD is an invention, let’s understand that ADHD is describing the way in which my son’s brain functions.
One more thing I will agree with Dr. Kagan about is that our current state of society and expectations makes it hard with someone (like my son) to function in the expected manner. Tutoring and more one-on-one time would help tremendously. It would resolve some of the “issues” those with this invented disorder have, but certainly not everything.
If we were in the 1800s, my son would most likely have been milking cows and doing hard labor starting at 4am. After chores were done, he’d be in a classroom with 20 less kids than today, for a shorter amount of time. His diet would be significantly different and then he’d be back outside until dark doing more chores or playing until his legs dropped dead. So yes, Dr. Kagan, our society is different now. Our lifestyles have changed in a way that is not friendly to those who need to keep busy and function in an “abnormal manner”. But guess what? The ADHD diagnosis allows my son to get the extra tutoring at school you say he so desperately needs; without this “made-up invention” he can’t get exceptions in school with his 504. Instead he’d be stuck in a classroom of 32 kids drowning.
If you want to get to the root cause of over-diagnosing ADHD, I’m all for it. The first order of business isn’t to look at the kids who are struggling, but to look at the environment they are struggling in. This very well could be one of those moments where the problem isn’t them — it’s us. Let’s find ways to understand those who struggle, how they work, and what we can do to help them be successful.
Until our entire society can change together instantaneously, please be understanding and respectful to those who actually have brains which function differently than the average person. These are the ones who need to be labeled ADHD; they need extra help, even if that extra help includes labeling them with what Dr. Kagan would call a “made-up invention” so they can get medication, or therapy recommendations, or exceptions in school…and the list goes on.
I am okay with medical professionals labeling the way my son’s brain function as ADHD. It’s not made up. Dr. Amen’s lectures and thousands of brain scans have made it very clear that my son’s brain is special, unique and needs a little bit of help to fit in to our societal boxes. I just hope everyone else out there who runs in to a kid (or mom, or co-worker, or spouse) with ADHD can fully understand this and love these wonderfully special people we call ADHD.
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