The Nation's Pulse

Overmedicated America

There's no cure for our cultural sickness.

By 3.14.14

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Roughly seven in ten Americans take a prescription drug. That’s surely a symptom of a sick society. Who will diagnose the diagnosticians?

The Mayo Clinic study that reported the shocking statistic in 2013 found that behind antibiotics, doctors prescribe opioids and antidepressants more than any other type of drug. The guy in the black trench coat calls them uppers and downers. The guy in the white lab coat applies fancier names: Dexedrine, Klonopin, Phenmetrazine, and others lending themselves to neither pronunciation nor understanding.

Bayer once marketed heroine. Parke-Davis pushed cocaine. Today, doctors write scripts for Adderall and Oxycodone — old wine, new bottles. Might our forebears look down on us the way we smugly look back at posterity?

A “disease” responsible for much of the prescription boom is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). A behavioral neurologist practicing for a half-century now believes it a made-up malady. When patients feign an illness, the English language assigns a word to them: malingerers. What to call doctors who dream up diseases?

“To treat ADHD as a condition, rather than a set of symptoms, is doing a terrible, and dangerous, disservice to the children and adults who are diagnosed with it,” Dr. Richard Saul, author of ADHD Doesn’t Exist, wrote at the Daily Mail earlier this week. “There is no doubt that the symptoms — an inability to pay attention to details, fidgeting, interrupting, difficulty staying seated, impulsive behavior — exist. But to lump them together and turn them into a diagnosis of ADHD, then to treat this so-called condition with stimulants, is like treating the symptoms of a heart attack — such as severe chest pain — with painkillers, rather than tackling the cause of them by repairing the heart.”

The New York Times reported this week that prescriptions for ADHD, a disease that some respected doctors don’t believe exists, doubled between 2008 and 2012. The article detailed that more than three million adults, and several million more children, received prescriptions for the controversial condition in 2012. What’s good for business isn’t necessarily good for us.

Science, as its Latin root suggests, does what we know amazingly well. X-rays and tests can definitively diagnose broken legs and breast cancer. Science stumbles when it confuses speculation for knowledge. Whether one believes ADHD real or not, one must concede the near universality of several of its symptoms and that the diagnosis appears remarkably subjective. Whatever doctor tests you for HIV, the answer will be the same. The same patient may or may not receive an ADHD diagnosis depending on the doctor. Guessing isn’t science. Knowing is.

Dr. Saul points to iron deficiencies as a reason for many misdiagnoses. But pixilation surplus is the 51-inch gorilla in the living room. How can a teacher, or a parent, compete with screens for a child’s attention?

The onslaught of iPhones and Xboxes ensure a focus deficit because of how they affect our brains and our bodies. Shutting them off every so often, rather than turning kids on to drugs, seems a remedy worth trying. Books, which take effort, and teachers, who can drone on, can’t compete with machines that automate and outsource thinking. And kids, who need the outdoors and activity receiving instead after-school confinement and electronic stimulation, necessarily end up with a surfeit of unexpended energy as a result of digital distractions. The problem calls for parental or societal intervention.

A chemical one works more often as poison than cure, which shouldn’t surprise given the propensity for the concoctions that help to also hurt if taken in the wrong amount — or at all. The Greek word “pharmakon” — sound familiar? — can mean poison or cure. Our pharmacy can heal or kill, too.

Addiction, depression, suicide, social alienation, incapacitation, overdose, and insomnia serve as a few of the outcomes of prescription drugs. The risk of assigning a child any of these afflictions merely because he or she appears full of beans in math class seems not worth the potential reward.

Americans, a majority of whom rely on some kind of pharmaceutical, are sick alright. If only chemists could devise a medication to cure overmedication. 

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About the Author
Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game, edits Breitbart Sports.