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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Misdiagnosing hyperactivity

Published: October 4, 2013
Section: Opinions

Wrongful use of prescription drugs such as Adderall and Ritalin on college campuses has come to the media spotlight in recent years. Designed for patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), college students use the stimulant as a study aid to improve focus.

However, in light of recent research on the extreme and medically unjustified rise in rates of ADHD diagnoses in America, one must be skeptical—are patients even given the right meds or are they being misdiagnosed?

ADHD is frequently mentioned lightly, but the overwhelming rise in ADHD diagnoses is something that should be seriously discussed and curtailed. According to the CDC, “The percentage of children with a parent-reported ADHD diagnosis increased by 22 percent between 2003 and 2007.” Looking at further research published this year CNN states, “11 percent of children aged 4 to 17 were diagnosed with ADHD, a 16 percent increase since 2007.”

It has come to the point where almost everyone knows someone diagnosed with ADHD. Frankly, these huge increases in diagnosis numbers during the years are startling. If that doesn’t sound shocking enough, consider this next fact: According to the New York Times, “Figures showed that an estimated 6.4 million children ages 4 through 17 had received an ADHD diagnosis at some point in their lives.” That’s a 41 percent increase this decade.

These statistics speak measures, and many more to attest to the monumental rise in diagnosis. While it may not seem like a big deal, the negative effects of being quick to diagnose a patient with ADHD are long term. The possibility that kids and teens are being misdiagnosed not only seems highly plausible, but also poses a danger to the health of our over-prescribed society.

Before I continue, I want to let it be known that this disorder is very real and those diagnosed deserve the best medical treatment. I’m not here to question the struggles of those who have to deal with ADHD. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “ Symptoms include difficulty staying focused and paying attention, difficulty controlling behavior, and hyperactivity (over-activity).” Many times ADHD takes therapy and medication to be treated and can still pose a daily challenge for those afflicted.

However, I want to emphasize that ADHD diagnosis is not a slapstick answer to a large number of patients who want to know how to decrease and justify anxiety, spotty attention and other mental issues. While ADHD may be less stigmatized and discussed than related disorders such as anxiety and depression, it is important to consider the full spectrum of mental disorders before coming to a conclusion about what one has.

So how exactly is ADHD diagnosed? Well, it is a tricky diagnosis with no exact test. Doctors look at a variety of behaviors and symptoms when making diagnoses. I have no doubt that the certainty of individuals or parents that ADHD is present, in themselves or their children, could be an influence when explaining symptoms of what they perceive is wrong.

People don’t want to assume themselves or their children could have a mood disorder consuming their attention and causing anxiety. Rather, it is more appealing to fall in line with the masses in explaining hyperactivity and other symptoms as ADHD.

If anxiety, depression and other disorders slip under the radar, they can get worse. With the right treatment and therapy, however, people with mental disorders can be very productive, successful and happy. It is much more frustrating and alienating to be misdiagnosed than to accept what you have and know how you can effectively help yourself.

There are also serious long-term medical implications with misdiagnosis. Aside from invalidating the actual mental disorder one has, misdiagnosis has other health effects.

Medicine prescribed for ADHD can have serious side effects; according to CNN, “ADHD drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall have been linked to dramatic weight loss and suppressed growth.” Furthermore, the article states, “Experts have voiced concern that early use of the behavior-modifying drugs could alter the natural arc of children’s social and creative development.”

Knowing the dangers of misdiagnosis can lead one to having the best approach when going in for testing. Keeping an open mind and making sure the doctor has more time than a usual office visit to access a patient is crucial. If the doctor or patient is in a rush, or there are preconceived ideas, this will hinder the ability to accurately assess one’s condition.

Time is the key part of the equation. Building a good patient-doctor relationship, where observation takes place in a relaxed setting, will allow the most comprehensive analysis and treatment plan. Don’t rush answers; just as treatment is a multifaceted process, the initial diagnosis should be as well.