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Doping Up 4 Million Kids

by Maggie Gallagher

"RITALIN, Ritalin, seizure drugs, Ritalin" -- a school nurse in East Boston sings the new "rhythm of noontime" at schools nationwide.

The number of kids popping Ritalin with their peanut butter sandwiches is now estimated to be "well over 3 million," according to The New York Times; "approaching the 4 million mark," according to Mary Eberstadt a consulting editor at Policy Review.

Ritalin has become the drug of choice -- teachers' and parents' choice -- for the playground set, because it helps combat the effects of a mysterious proposed "neurological disorder" called attention deficit disorder (ADD). There is no test for ADD, just a constellation of behavior problems in search of a solution. According to the latest Diagnostic and Statistics Manual, the diagnostic criteria for more children include six months' worth or more of things like: "fidgeting, squirming, distraction, difficulty waiting turns, blurting out answers, losing things, interrupting and ignoring adults."

Unsurprisingly, boys are three to five times more likely than girls to wear the ADD label.

"There is no clear line of demarcation between ADD and normal behavior," as psychiatrists Edward Hallowell and John Tatey put in their book, "Driven to Distraction."

Do you often get excited by projects and then not follow through? Do you have a hard time relaxing? Do you smoke or drink? Do you drum your fingers? Do you like to gamble? Are you particularly intuitive? Are you a maverick? As a kid, where you a klutz at sports? Do you let the bank balance your checkbook? Do you love to travel? Do you laugh a lot? Do you get the gist of things very quickly?

If you answered yes to many of the above, then the gist is you, too, may have ADD. I kid you not. These questions are from a list developed by Hallowell and Tatey to "offer a rough assessment as to whether professional help should be sought to make the actual diagnosis of ADD." And the professionals' tests are no better.

For millions of satisfied teachers (who at this point are the chief pushers of Ritalin), the proof of the pudding is in the eating: Kids on Ritalin become more focused and more compliant in the classroom. So what's the problem?

The problem is that Ritalin is virtually indistinguishable from cocaine and other amphetamines. As a 1995 report in the Archives of General Psychiatry puts it, "Cocaine, which is one of the most reinforcing and addicting of the abused drugs, has pharmacological actions that are very similar to those of [Ritalin]."

Anyone who takes uppers, regardless of whether or not they have ADD, will improve their performance in the short term. In the long term, the cycle of getting high and crashing ("rebounding", in Ritalinese), insomnia, weight loss, increasing tolerance which creates craving for more stimulants, produces more problems than it solves.

There is a genuine discipline problems in the schools, a problem compounded by broken hearts and broken homes, by silly legal intervention, sometimes unsupportive parents, and failed school policies that make keeping order in the classroom difficult for even the best teachers.

But doping up 4 million kids? There's got to be a better way!