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A few months ago a great meme came through my Facebook news feed. In several graphic frames, it showed people with serious physical injuries being treated ther same way as people with serious mental health problems. Characters asked the injured: "have you tried not having a broken arm?" They told people with bleeding wounds to "just snap out of it." I thought it was a great satire on how we disbelieve that mental illness is real. It's especially hard when the mental condition causes behaviors that make trouble for carers and loved ones.
Amongst children, we could look to ADHD for a disease that fits that bill.
ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is a mental condition that causes restlessness and fidgeting. And if that were all, we'd hear a lot less about it. In fact, it blows big holes in a person's ability to concentrate, leaving them easily bored or distracted in a way that's not related to motivation or emotion: a kid with ADHD can know the answers, want to do well and flunk the test anyway.
Can't They Just Snap Out Of It?
Just like a person with depression or addiction can't just pull themselves together, people with ADHD can't just not have it.
In the US, the Diagniostic definition and the treatment guidelines for ADHD come from the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The DSM states that ADHD is a biological problem: if you have ADHD, there's something wrong with your brain. It locates the problem physically inside of you, and the preferred treatment is drug therapy like Ritalin. Ritalin is a central nervous system stimulant that's designed to ramp up dopamine activity in the prefrontal cortex, the physical location of the planning and executive function activities in the human brain. If you have ADHD, you have low dopaminic activity, so you take Ritalin and you should now be fine.
That Doesn't Appear To Be Working
For one thing there's a thriving kid-level black market in Ritalin. For another, Ritalin itself comes with a whole host of problems including increased risk of future drug dependency (the manufacturer calls Ritalin a drug of dependency).
Here's what else Ritalin and Adderall manufacturers say about their products: They can cause sudden death in children with undiagnosed cardiac conditions, they can cause facial tics, weight loss and sleeping troubles, they can trigger hallucinations and psychotic or manic episodes, they can cause the development of new bipolar conditions in children who never previously had them, half of all children prescribed these drugs develop symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder within the first year of use, and they can cause thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
And the worst of all? Twenty percent of American boys are prescribed these drugs.
Everyone knows ADHD doesn't have a "cure" and people with the condition can't just snap out of it.