When my children were young, my world revolved around them. So, when my own son was diagnosed with ADHD, I resisted the idea of medication I hated the idea of anything that would change him. Eventually I gave in, persuaded by the idea that I was hurting him more by resisting medication, than I was helping him without it.
But I found the subjectiveness of an ADHD diagnosis disturbing, especially compared to the potency of ADHD medication. I watched my sweet (but a little nutty) little boy become quiet. I saw him struggling to eat and encouraged to drink protein drinks to make-up for his weight loss. I saw him struggle as the medication wore off, irritable without knowing why, and I saw him unable to fall asleep. Worst of all were the panic attacks and the night terrors, which sometimes left him sleeping next to me so I could reach out to him if he needed me.
My son’s doctor never questioned his ADHD diagnosis, but suggested another medication for his increased anxiety – a side effect of his ADHD medication. Although we didn’t start the 2nd medication, we’d been directed down a path to multiple medications, or “polypharmacy”, familiar to many parents.
On August 28, 2022, the New York Times’ headline article was about medicating children, with the title: This teen was Prescribed 10 Psychiatric Drugs. She Was far From Alone.” The article described how the majority of children on multiple psychiatric drugs start with ADHD medication, with medications simply added – while the initial diagnosis is rarely questioned. My response to the article was published in the NY Times a week later, read more here.
Internal data at Gray Matters suggests that only around 1 in 5 children diagnosed with ADHD actually have a brain profile that would benefit from stimulant medication – those with under-aroused brains. The much larger proportion have over-aroused, dysregulated brains that look more anxious than ADHD.
What happens when you give these over-aroused, dysregulated children a stimulant? These are the children that try one ADHD medication after another, looking for the ADHD medication that is “best tolerated”. The reality is that this is a search to find the least badly tolerated medication, rather than what is right for the child.
As the New York Times article and our own experience suggests, ADHD is the most frequent source of misdiagnosis, and a cascade of further medications that fundamentally alters our children’s experience, often without cause. The numbers are staggering. According to a study from the Centers for Disease Control in 2016, 9.4% of all U.S children are diagnosed with ADHD. Another study, published in the Journal Pediatrics, found that 40.7% of children prescribed ADHD medication are also prescribed another medication to regulate mood.
I formed Gray Matters in 2008 to bridge the gap between advances in neuroscience and the subjective way children are diagnosed – so that other parents and children can be saved from what we experienced. Gray Matters now treats more adults than children, and for a wide variety of issues, but our mission remains the same: Better, evidence-based diagnosis, and to avoid medication where possible. As I wrote in The Times, “…our children should not have to lose years of their lives through a fog of medication they may never have needed at all.”