Last week, while browsing the net, I came across an article regarding a 20-year-old study on the use of drugs as treatment for ADHD. This subject particularly hit home to me, as I am a mother of a child that was previously diagnosed with ADHD. A certain sadness came over me and I felt an uncontrollable urge to cry. In fact, I did cry. And during my brief little cry, I managed to draw a long breath – a deep sigh of relief, as those days were behind me and my child is fine.
The study that was done was titled the Multimodal Treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (MTA) Study. The study involved about a dozen or so leaders in child psychiatry who were given $11 million by the National Institute of Mental Health in order to find out which treatment would be best for those being diagnosed with the disorder. They were to study specifically if medication, behavioral therapy or both, would be most effective in the treatment. The results of the study concluded that drugs provided the best overall treatment and with much quicker results. In fact, the study concluded that those who received both behavioral therapy and drugs had little advantage over those that just received the drugs. Of course the drug manufacturers ran away with this study and used it for marketing and to convince those skeptical of using drugs for treatment, that the benefits outweighed other treatments used in this study. Another advantage that they emphasized was that the cost of the drug for the family was approximately $200 a year versus a cost of approximately $1000 a year for behavioral therapy. Often times, the schools were not staffed to handle therapy and most insurance companies did not cover this type of treatment.
In the early 90’s, it was estimated that less than 5% of school-age children had ADHD. According to data received from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in early 2013, they estimate that 11% of children between the ages of 4 -17 have been diagnosed with ADHD. So why the jump?
There has been much speculation as to why those numbers have increased almost to the point of an epidemic. Some speculate that teachers and other school staff find it easier to manage a student that is distracting to others or has trouble focusing versus the methods used prior to ADHD. In previous years, teachers would use some form of punishment for those that were disruptive or didn’t “pay attention” in class. Others speculate that “No Child Left Behind” contributed to the rise by punishing and or providing incentives to schools based on their performance. If a child was diagnosed with ADHD, then their scores could be removed in some cases as not to negatively affect the school’s performance. Others claim that the diagnosis didn’t require any certain guidelines or time-frame and a child could often get a diagnosis within a simple 15 minute doctor’s visit. Often times, they claimed that doctors would advise the parent that they could experiment with the drug to see if it had any kind of an affect. Regardless, the diagnosis hit near epidemic levels over the past 20 years.
So you can imagine how horrified I was when I read about these latest findings. In a way, it was a bit of good news. It appears that some of those involved in the original MTA study have decided that they may have underestimated behavioral therapy as a treatment as well as possibly overstating the treatment of drugs. At least two of the co-authors have come forward to make this claim, stating, “I hope it didn’t do irreparable damage” said co author, Dr. Lilly Hechtman of Montreal’s Gill University. Co-author and child psychiatrist Dr. Gene Arnold who is also a professor at Ohio State University said, “There was lost opportunity to give kids the advantage of both and develop more resources in schools to support the child- that value was dismissed.” Why did they come out with this now? How can we trust their sincerity regarding the “hope” that it didn’t do irreparable damage to our children?
My own personal struggle as a mother is a different story. I’m sure that my child has his own scars in our battle with ADHD. From the time that my son was in 3rd grade, we witnessed our own hell with this diagnosis. My son was, and still is, a very sweet boy. He didn’t have a mean stroke in his body. But he struggled in school. He didn’t comprehend and the teacher was SURE that my son had ADHD. I was horrified as I started my research that Ritalin was the drug of choice and read horror stories of addictions, depression and anxiety. The doctor was not so quick to give the 15-minute diagnosis and we were grateful for that. In the years to follow, I marched into a classroom, took my son‘s hand as I walked him out, removed my son from public schools, talked with an attorney and met with countless members of the school district. I caved at one point and allowed my son to briefly experiment with Ritalin, Adderall and Strattera all of which did nothing. I tried homeopathic methods and even filled a thermos with coffee. I wanted so badly to find an alternative to drugs, but nothing was available. Could this study have affected alternative treatments that may have been made available to my son if it had not determined that behavioral therapy had little to no effect for treatment compared to drugs? Would therapy have helped him or helped ease the constant battle that we endured in our fight to keep him off drugs? I am aware that ADHD drugs have helped many children and adults who have this disorder, but they did not help my son. He was not hurt but how many children has it hurt?
I’m thankful that this study is getting a 2nd look. How many other families are going through or have gone through what my son and I have gone through? I don’t know the answers to that. But I do know that through my tears, I took a long breath and a big sigh of relief. You see, it was not too late for my son. I watched him walk down the aisle when he got his H.S. diploma and boy did we celebrate that day.