Saturday, May 25, 2013

ADHD: The Affliction of the Millennials

The New York Times in March 2013 reported that a staggering 6.4 million American children between the ages of 4 and 17 suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. If this number doesn’t shock you, it should. According to the article, that translates to one in five high-school aged boys in the United States; and this number has increased 41 percent in the past decade.

I studied ADHD when I was working on my undergraduate degree in Psychology at Florida Atlantic University. It is a disorder, typically manifested in early childhood, that is characterized by inattention, lack of focus and distraction.

Students affected by ADHD struggle to concentrate on classwork, so the initial signs are often picked up by the student’s teacher and then brought to the attention of the parents.

Most anybody can point to a family member or a close friend who has the disorder; it has become as ubiquitous as the common cold. For me, it was my younger sister. From an early age, she struggled to concentrate in school, was easily distracted and performed poorly in her classes; not because she was an inadequate student, but because she couldn’t stay focused.

What my sister lacked in focus, though, she made up for in sheer determination. She attacked her studies and turned her grades around, transforming her disorder from a disability into a minor inconvenience. She graduated from high school last week with the class of 2013, and I could not be more excited or proud. 

ADHD is a crippling disorder-- no doubt about that-- and can magnify the everyday challenges of an average student. I watched my sister struggle with it for her entire life. 

Still, there is a piece missing to this puzzle. As I mentioned before, student cases of ADHD have risen by 41 percent in the past decade. Why is the prevalence of ADHD so much higher today than it was ten years ago? Why are so many more students being diagnosed with the disorder? 

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is a manual detailing every known psychiatric and mental disorder. The newest version of the DSM, projected to be released in 2013, is expected to include an updated definition of ADHD with less stringent parameters for diagnosis.

While the updated version of the DSM will contain the most current research and information available on the subject, I would suggest reading it with a grain of salt. The manual is not as black-and-white as it should be, and is often the subject of zeitgeist rather than empiricism. Until the 70s, the DSM listed homosexuality as a mental disorder. The listing was amended when a rapidly shifting social climate overpowered the myopic perspectives of its authors, but the fact remains: the medical field is inevitably coupled with the attitude of its culture. 

I do not believe that ADHD is 41 percent more prevalent today than it was a decade ago; rather, I think that the widespread rise in ADHD is more indicative of the American zeitgeist than a biological phenomenon. While students like my sister truly struggle with the disorder, more and more children are misdiagnosed with ADHD as doctors attempt to explain a widespread attention deficit that is endemic to the culture of the millennial generation. 

For the first time in history, children are growing up in a world saturated with digital technology and instant information. The advent of the smartphone industry in particular highlights the underlying needs of our generation: we want information and we want it now. 

The challenge of the millennial generation is no longer to develop knowledge, but rather to discern the relevant from the irrelevant. Log on to any website and you’ll see countless advertisements, videos, and images lining the page. We have come to accept this inundation of information as a way of life, and, thus, made space for the proliferation of the privacy economy-- an economy where we provide personal information in exchange for free services.

We give an e-mail address for a music download; we provide information to marketers for a social profile. And, at every turn, we are paid in due with e-mails, ads, videos, and commercials all screaming for attention, for allegiance, for money. 

No wonder our kids can’t focus. 

Dr. Michael J. Breus suggests that children and adults diagnosed with ADHD might actually be experiencing symptoms of sleep disorder, and attributes disrupted sleep cycles to the “nonstop, perpetually wired, always ‘on’ culture we live in today.” He argues that we can realign our sleep schedule by unplugging ourselves from the digital world and creating quiet, dark, “gadget-free sanctuaries” to facilitate the body’s natural sleeping process.

In Psychology Today, Dr. Marilyn Wedge compares the prevalence of ADHD internationally, citing a 9% diagnosis rate in the United States against a .5% rate in France. If there was ever evidence of a cultural trend, this would be it. Dr. Wedge suggests that this gap is the result of mismanaged priorities in pediatric medicine. While American doctors look for the easiest “pharmacological bandaids with which to mask symptoms,” the French target the root causes of the child’s symptoms. It is often easier to diagnosis an inattentive child with ADHD and write a prescription for Ritalin than it is to examine any environmental or personality factors that might result in similar symptoms. 

Our chemical culture wants the easy answer, a simple prescription to reduce the deleterious behavior. We see a problem, and we want an easy fix. While this practice may provide the short-term solution that we seek, it is far more harmful to our society in the long run. We continue to overmedicate and numb ourselves to the real problems, providing the space to let them grow. I have a friend who refuses to take pain medicine when she has a headache because she believes pain is a sign that her body needs to rest and recover; ignoring this warning could cause more overall stress and lead to sickness or more pain.

Rather than seek a pharmacological bandaid, I think we need to realign our priorities and pursue the underlying root of attention deficit in early childhood. If, as Dr. Breus suggests, ADHD shares common symptoms with sleep disorder, it might be time to focus on a more natural solution to the problem. 

Ritalin and Adderall are effective drugs insofar as they keep the mind focused and assist with concentration. But they do not address the underlying issues that face a majority of today’s youth: disruption by digital technology and information overload. It’s time to ditch the prescriptions and seek a more permanent solution to the ADHD problem. Our children need to unplug. They need to come offline, step outdoors, read a book, or go for a hike. Most of all, they need to get some rest.

Our problem isn’t that 41% more children have ADHD today than they did ten years ago; our problem is that we have developed an ADHD culture. The millennial generation must learn to unplug and relax if we ever want to accomplish anything of lasting value.