CANTON, Ga. — When Dr. Michael Anderson hears about his low-income patients struggling in elementary school, he usually gives them a taste of some powerful medicine: Adderall.
The pills boost focus and impulse control in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Although ADHD is the diagnosis Anderson makes, he calls the disorder “made up” and “an excuse” to prescribe the pills to treat what he considers the children’s true ill — poor academic performance in inadequate schools.
“I don’t have a whole lot of choice,” Anderson, a pediatrician for many poor families in Cherokee County, north of Atlanta, said in an interview. “We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid.”
Anderson is one of the more outspoken proponents of an idea that is gaining interest among some physicians. They are prescribing stimulants to struggling students in schools starved of extra money — not to treat ADHD, necessarily, but to boost their academic performance.
It is not yet clear whether Anderson is representative of a widening trend. But some experts note that as wealthy students abuse stimulants to raise already-good grades in colleges and high schools, the medications are being used on low-income elementary schoolchildren with faltering grades and parents eager to see them succeed.
“We as a society have been unwilling to invest in very effective nonpharmaceutical interventions for these children and their families,” said Ramesh Raghavan, a child mental-health services researcher at Washington University in St. Louis and an expert in prescription medication use among low-income children. “We are effectively forcing local community psychiatrists to use the only tool at their disposal, which is psychotropic medications.”
Dr. Nancy Rappaport, a child psychiatrist in Cambridge, Mass., who works primarily with lower-income children and their schools, added: “We are seeing this more and more. We are using a chemical straitjacket instead of doing things that are just as important to also do, sometimes more.”
Anderson’s instinct, he said, is that of a “social justice thinker” who is “evening the scales a little bit.” He said that the children he sees with academic problems are essentially “mismatched with their environment” — square pegs chafing at the round holes of public education. Because their families can rarely afford behavior-based therapies like tutoring and family counseling, he said, medication becomes the most reliable and pragmatic way to redirect the student toward success.
“People who are getting A’s and B’s, I won’t give it to them,” he said. For some parents the pills provide great relief. Jacqueline Williams said she can’t thank Anderson enough for diagnosing ADHD in her children — Eric, 15; Chekiara, 14; and Shamya, 11 — and prescribing Concerta, a long-acting stimulant, for them all. She said each was having trouble listening to instructions and concentrating on schoolwork.
“My kids don’t want to take it, but I told them, ‘These are your grades when you’re taking it, this is when you don’t,’ and they understood,” Williams said, noting that Medicaid covers almost every penny of her doctor and prescription costs.
Some experts see little harm in a responsible physician using Ritalin or its siblings to help a struggling student. Others — even among the many like Rappaport who praise the use of stimulants as treatment for classic ADHD — fear that doctors are exposing children to unwarranted physical and psychological risks. Reported side effects of the drugs have included growth suppression, increased blood pressure and, in rare cases, psychotic episodes.
According to guidelines published last year by the American Academy of Pediatrics, physicians should use one of several behavior rating scales, some of which feature dozens of categories, to make sure that a child not only fits criteria for ADHD, but also has no related condition such as dyslexia or oppositional defiant disorder, in which intense anger is directed toward authority figures. However, a 2010 study in the Journal of Attention Disorders suggested that at least 20 percent of doctors said they did not follow this protocol when making their ADHD diagnoses, with many of them following personal instinct.
On the Rocafort family’s kitchen shelf in Ball Ground, Ga., next to the peanut butter and chicken broth, sits a wire basket brimming with bottles of the children’s medications prescribed by Anderson: Adderall for Alexis, 12; and Ethan, 9; Risperdal (an antipsychotic for mood stabilization) for Quintn and Perry, both 11; and Clonidine (a sleep aid to counteract the other medications) for all four, taken nightly.
Quintn began taking Adderall for ADHD about five years ago, when his disruptive school behavior led to calls home and in-school suspensions. He immediately settled down and became a more earnest, attentive student — a little bit more like Perry, who also took Adderall for his ADHD.
When puberty’s chemical maelstrom began at about 10, though, Quintn got into fights at school because, he said, other children were insulting his mother. The problem was, they were not; Quintn was seeing people and hearing voices that were not there, a rare but recognized side effect of Adderall. After Quintn admitted to being suicidal, Anderson prescribed a week in a local psychiatric hospital, and a switch to Risperdal.
While telling this story, the Rocaforts called Quintn into the kitchen and asked him to describe why he had been given Adderall.
“To help me focus on my schoolwork, my homework, listening to Mom and Dad, and not doing what I used to do to my teachers, to make them mad,” he said. He described the week in the hospital and the effects of Risperdal: “If I don’t take my medicine I’d be having attitudes. I’d be disrespecting my parents. I wouldn’t be like this.”
Despite Quintn’s experience with Adderall, the Rocaforts decided to use it with their daughter, Alexis, and son, Ethan. These children don’t have ADHD, their parents said. The Adderall is merely to help their grades, and because Alexis was, in her father’s words, “a little blah.”
“We’ve seen both sides of the spectrum: we’ve seen positive, we’ve seen negative,” the father, Rocky Rocafort, said. Acknowledging that Alexis’ use of Adderall is “cosmetic,” he added, “If they’re feeling positive, happy, socializing more, and it’s helping them, why wouldn’t you? Why not?”
Anderson said that every child he treats with ADHD medication has met qualifications. But he also railed against those criteria, saying they were codified only to “make something completely subjective look objective.” He added that teacher reports almost invariably come back as citing the behaviors that would warrant a diagnosis, a decision he called more economic than medical.
“The school said if they had other ideas they would,” Anderson said. “But the other ideas cost money and resources compared to meds.”
Anderson cited William G. Hasty Elementary School in Canton as one school he deals with often. Izell McGruder, the school’s principal, did not respond to several messages seeking comment.
Several educators contacted for this article considered the subject of ADHD so controversial — the diagnosis was misused at times, they said, but for many children it is a serious learning disability — that they declined to comment. The superintendent of one major school district in California, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, noted that diagnosis rates of ADHD have risen as sharply as school funding has declined.
“It’s scary to think that this is what we’ve come to; how not funding public education to meet the needs of all kids has led to this,” said the superintendent, referring to the use of stimulants in children without classic ADHD. “I don’t know, but it could be happening right here. Maybe not as knowingly, but it could be a consequence of a doctor who sees a kid failing in overcrowded classes with 42 other kids and the frustrated parents asking what they can do. The doctor says, ‘Maybe it’s ADHD, let’s give this a try.’”