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Tragedies like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary aren't just agonizing and heart-wrenching for millions of people - they're frustrating. We keep asking ourselves "how?" and "why?" And, with authorities still trying to piece together evidence, the public has to make do with limited - and often incorrect - information. First came reports that the shooter, Adam Lanza, might have Asperger's. To my knowledge, no authoritative source has yet confirmed Lanza had a formal diagnosis of that or any other emotional, behavioral or developmental condition. But that lack of evidence - as well as expert consensus that Asperger's was extremely unlike to have triggered a shooting rampage - didn't stop an army of commentators from weighing in. Now, comes the speculation about whether Lanza might have a history of taking mood or behavior-altering medication. Don't get me wrong, here. I'm not blaming journalists, bloggers, pundits, Twitter users, and the general public from wondering if Lanza might be taking psychiatric meds. In fact, it's one of the first questions that came to my mind - even before I heard the reports of his possible Asperger's.
This weekend a mother published a New York Times column about how her son came to be diagnosed with ADHD and became a member of the ballooning "Ritalin Generation." "Just a little medication," the teacher told the boy's mother, "could really turn things around" for the boy, who was having trouble focusing on class worksheets and lining up quietly for transitions between classes. When the mother firmly responded that she and her husband weren't going to medicate their son, the teacher backtracked, sounding mock-horrified. She wasn't explicitly suggesting medication, she said. The law prohibited such a thing. She just didn't want him to fall through the cracks - and thus was was merely suggesting the boy's parents have him evaluated by a psychologist. The boy was evaluated, and sure enough, he ended up on Ritalin for a short-time, though he quit it on his own a year later, matured out of his former inattentiveness, and eventually ended up a well-adjusted, school-loving honor-roll student - and medication-free. Such stories are commonly invoked as cautionary tales about the alleged over-diagnosis of ADHD and other behavior disorders and over-prescribing of drugs like Ritalin to keep children's behavior in check. Teachers recommending meds for disruptive students often feature prominently. In fact, the debate over school involvement in medicating disruptive children showed up as early as the early 1970s.