How would it go over, I wonder, if the mainstream media – egged on by politicians or rogue researchers – came out and declared that clinical depression was a scam? A collusion between drug companies and doctors – aided and abetted by families of the afflicted – to hoodwink the community and generate profits? A fabricated disorder that doesn’t need to be diagnosed, much less medicated? Can you imagine it? Me neither.
But this is precisely the narrative that’s routinely peddled about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – a condition that affects about 5 per cent of Australians (source: ADHD Australia) – and reiterated in the news media with monotonous regularity.
National media coverage of a study by a team of Western Australian researchers – alleging that children are unnecessarily treated with psychostimulant medication because they’re immature – is just the latest instalment in what’s become a wearisome saga of exaggeration, conspiracy and misinformation. And sadly, those very ingredients seem to be what makes the topic of ADHD so singularly irresistible.
According to lead researcher, Martin Whitely, his study – published last week in the Medical Journal of Australia – supports the hypothesis that ADHD is “misdiagnosed” and that stimulants are overprescribed. It’s an argument that Whitely has been running for more than a decade, despite statistics from the Western Australian Department of Health suggesting that stimulants may, in fact, be under-utilised when prescribing rates are viewed alongside prevalence for the disorder.
That’s just the prologue, though. Whitely’s real agenda, if you read the full commentary, is to suggest that ADHD is a concoction by the “ADHD industry” to pathologise essentially normal behaviour of children who are either lacking in love, or discipline, or both. So there you go – most of his scorn is reserved for doctors and Big Pharma, but parents don’t get off scot-free.
None of this is particularly out of left field for the former teacher and state MP who once accused Australia’s most renowned psychiatrist, Patrick McGorry, of “disease mongering“. Indeed, Whitely has made a career out of headline grabbing sound bites, claiming, for instance, that it’s “almost harder not to get diagnosed with ADHD than it is to get diagnosed with it”. Really?
But if Whitely’s “late birthdate effect” replicates the findings of other international research, it certainly doesn’t support a conclusion that one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood doesn’t exist. Or not, at least, according to other researchers who suggest that the results may mean older children are under diagnosed and not getting the help they need. Indeed, subsequent research by the Icelandic academics who also demonstrated a late birthdate effect reveals that earlier stimulant treatment is better for academic achievement than delayed treatment. How inconvenient.
Don’t ask me why Whitely – whose books are spruiked alongside titles such as The Myth of Mental Illness and Psychiatry: An Industry of Death – is obsessed with undermining the legitimacy of ADHD, or why his theories are embraced by an organisation affiliated with the Church of Scientology. There’s one thing I do know, however, as the parent of a child with ADHD: he’s not helping much.
According to other Western Australian research – not as newsworthy, granted, as Whitely’s heroic piece – parents agonise over whether or not to medicate their children, and typically experience a period of denial and grief in the wake of a child’s diagnosis; an experience exacerbated by the lurid depiction of ADHD in the media, and its periodic portrayal as a myth or a fraud.
As for the architects of that portrayal, who are seemingly unconcerned with the “anguish” caused to families and sufferers: they’re lining up to condemn, pointing the finger at the adverse effects of stimulant medication – which are, for the most part, manageable – and largely silent on the downsides of not treating. Which I could tell you all about.
The consequence of that option – the other side of coin when it comes to the stimulant debate – is not a child who’s bouncing off the walls or out of control, ill disciplined or misunderstood. Or unloved. It’s this: a bright child who sits staring at a blank page for hours because he simply can’t focus for long enough to finish, or even start, the task at hand. It’s a quiet child who despairs before she even puts on her shoes in the morning – which itself takes quite a while – contemplating the day ahead, who has to be reminded a dozen times to finish her breakfast. It’s the creative, the dynamic, the curious and the charismatic who struggle to control their impulses, to impose order on the chaos, and who mysteriously fail at every turn. And it’s those who’ve just stopped trying altogether.
There’s little doubt we need more research into ADHD. We need to better understand the role of brain iron and dopamine and molecular genetics. We need to unpick why it happens and how to cure it or – at least – how to make the world more friendly for the ADHD brain. We also need to adopt more flexible instructional methods, more creative teaching, and place greater value on divergent thinking.
But every time I read another disavowal of ADHD, here’s what I think: perhaps we are being deceived, and let down, after all. Not by doctors, or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual – the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals – or by other clinicians who are, on the whole, doing their level best in a diabolically complex medical area.
Maybe, instead, we’re being betrayed by all those with story to sell or an axe to grind – who haven’t spared a thought for the damage they’re inflicting on the people they profess to care about, and who persist in telling us that our struggles aren’t real, that our experiences, or those of our children, are just a fiction.
Sarah Gill is a Fairfax Media columnist.
See the full article and links here: http://www.theage.com.au/comment/scientists-lurid-claims-about-adhd-do-parents-no-good-20170131-gu2ajh.html