One kid goes to his pediatrician and reports he sometimes “squirms in his seat” at school, and is promptly prescribed a medicine called Adderall for his ADHD. His self-reporting of “squirming” is just that, a subjective, impossible-to-validate description that promptly gets him a very sought after “medicine” in Adderall. In most cases, the prescription will be written indefinitely, specific behavioral markers for progress will never be established, and if the kid sought the prescription for recreational purposes it will never be known. But, he will be using a medicine, a much more comfortable word to say rather than saying he is using a drug.
Even though Adderall is one of the most sought after and abused recreational drugs for high school and college students nationwide, if it is attained from a pediatrician (in many cases by simply feigning symptoms, or in some cases just asking for it), caution and safeguards go by the wayside — often because of the way the substance is described (drug v. medicine).
Using an entirely different example to try and prove the same point, take the following 2 examples:
“You make me mad.”
“I feel upset.”
While the essence of both messages are very similar, the way they are stated presents two entirely different interpretations. The first statement is direct, and is interpreted as a threat. The second example is softer, and almost invites you to help.
Now go back to the “drug” vs. “medicine” discussion for a moment — we tend to take an immediate step back when we hear “drug,” but become much more receptive and open to substances presented as “medicine.” The truth is regardless of what you call a substance, there are still side-, withdrawal-, and interaction-effects to worry about.
When I meet with clients at my office who ask about getting a prescription for their ADD/ADHD, I turn their request for “medicine” into one for a “drug,” and I also remind them that they will need to be given a mental illness label of ADD/ADHD in order for anyone to fill their prescription request. My goal in doing this is not to artificially frighten anyone, but instead to remind people in a very direct and factual way that while it does seem like everyone is “ADD” these days (and many on Adderall), the fact of the matter is ADD/ADHD are mental health disorders, and Adderall is a drug with potentially dangerous side-effects. People should know that information, right?
Words really do matter, and when we soften potentially dangerous drugs to seem like they are nothing more than little harmless “helpers” for kids who don’t focus well, we are not only doing a dis-service to kids, but we are also placing them in potentially dangerous situations. Being ascribed a mental health label without a thorough and proper diagnosis by a licensed mental health clinician can lead to negative self-fulfilling prophecies, bullying, and of course, the direct dangers of using a drug (especially at a young age).
Become an active, critical thinking parent
It is important to realize kids are kids, and it is normal for them to squirm, lose their attention, and not always do exactly what you want. What these kids are not is mentally ill, and the vast majority are not in need of a pharmaceutical drug like Adderall to mute their childlike behaviors and turn them into complacent mini-adults. Don’t fall into the false safety trap of thinking that when a pediatrician doles out “medicine” that it is harmless, or that your child won’t experience potential future issues once he is saddled with a mental illness label (i.e. future health insurance rates may increase as a result).
If you have an active child, talk to your pediatrician about behavioral, non-drug approaches to help with attention and focus. Get multiple opinions if you need to, and work with your son’s teachers and other school personnel to help improve social interactions, patience, discipline, and learning strategies. While it may seem like “everyone is ADD and on meds,” the reality is that there are serious dangers when we let our guards down and falsely assume that very young kids are better off using “medicine” and being labelled mentally ill.