I guess I jinxed it. On Tuesday, I wrote a blog post putting forward the tentative idea that media coverage of ADHD was starting to improve. By Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal had rushed out an article titled We’re Overmedicating Our Children.
The article is peppered with the usual glib statements you’d expect. It said that “American children have a drug problem” and referred multiple times to psychiatric medications as a “quick fix.”
Now, there’s a legitimate discussion to be had around the best practices for diagnosing ADHD in children and for determining the appropriate treatment. But articles like yesterday’s WSJ piece aren’t contributing to that discussion. They don’t engage with the scientific research on ADHD, and they don’t engage in an empathetic way with the real challenges faced by children with ADHD and their parents.
You’ve heard this rant before, so instead of going through everything that’s wrong with articles that do nothing more than flippantly rehash the “drugging out kids” trope, I want to look at a more specific element that’s common to these pieces: the idea that medications for ADHD are a “quick fix.”
The implication behind calling something a “quick fix” is that you are looking for an immediate, easy way out of a problem that could be better solved in the long-term with hard work.
Which brings us immediately to the first problem with referring to ADHD meds as a “quick fix.” If you have ADHD, no amount of trying harder is going to let you rejigger your own brain chemistry and make your ADHD symptoms disappear.
The point of meds is that they alter your brain chemistry to lessen the effect of your symptoms, something you can’t do on your own. In that sense, they’re not a quick fix as much as the only fix.
The next problem with the idea of ADHD meds as a “quick fix” is that they’re not really quick. The idea that you pop a pill and your problems go away isn’t the reality that ADHDers live. Rather, managing ADHD with the use of ADHD meds is a process of gradual improvement and hard work.
First there’s the process of starting medication. Beginning a psychiatric medication isn’t a decision that most people make lightly, and once you do get things rolling with your psychiatrist, it often takes multiple tries to find a medication that significantly improves your symptoms and has few side effects. Someone doesn’t go through this process because they’re looking for the “easy way out,” but because they face obstacles that they have already tried to solve through other means and cannot.
One you do find the med that works, managing your symptoms still requires constant effort. Here’s the thing: when you have ADHD, taking a med gives you control over your brain that you previously lacked, but you have to learn how to use that control.
Taking a med doesn’t magically give you the organizational skills you were never able to learn because of ADHD, for example. Rather, it gives you the boost in self-control to implement new organizational methods in your life. And taking a med certainly doesn’t undo the emotional effects of living with undiagnosed ADHD, but it puts you in a better position to work through that baggage.
Hence why medication is always more effective when it goes hand-in-hand with psychotherapy. When I see someone who is taking meds while building new coping skills and seeing a therapist every week, I don’t think “there’s someone who’s taking the easy way out,” I think “there’s someone who’s really putting in the effort to improve their life.”
It is, of course, enormously condescending to people with mental health conditions to suggest that meds are just a quick fix. It’s also plain ignorant because it’s based on the assumption that people can simply overcome mental health symptoms by trying harder.
Belatedly, in the second-to-last sentence of the WSJ article, the author acknowledges that “psychiatric medication is an important tool in treating serious mental illness,” but by that point the statement comes as an afterthought of a legalistic disclaimer rather than any attempt at a thoughtful engagement with the idea that psychiatric medications can actually, you know, help people.
There are a lot of other ways the article sells people with ADHD short. For example, it repeats the myth that ADHD meds put people at higher risk for addiction – which isn’t simply an unfounded claim but directly contradicts the evidence that ADHD meds tend to reduce people’s risk of substance use. I was going to get into that here, but I think the topic deserves its own post. So if that’s something you’re interested in, stay tuned for my next post, on what the actual research says about the link between ADHD meds and substance use!
Image: Flickr/William Ross