The Ritalin Sham
by John Breeding, Ph.D.
|Alice, the mother of
a seven-year-old son, Nathan, recently visited my office for a
counseling session. Nathan had reportedly been different and
difficult from the beginning: exhibiting early seizure-like
activity, a most challenging temperament, great sensitivity to
various types of stimulation, intense frustration, aggressive
tantrums, and other apparent developmental difficulties. Alice had
taken him to doctors from a young age, obtaining a variety of
mostly nonspecific diagnoses of developmental problems. Alice felt
unappreciated as a parent, hurt and angry that the Montessori
school her son had attended at ages four and five had ultimately
rejected him. She felt judged by other parents, whom she felt
blamed her for her son's challenging behavior. And she felt
unsupported by both camps of opinion regarding
"medication": the pro-Ritalin forces challenged her
reluctance to use the drug for her son, and the antidrug group
vehemently urged her to resist drug use.
Alice's personal stance on the Ritalin issue was clear. While
she basically agreed that these "medications" are not
good for children, she also felt that, in her family's case, it
had been helpful. Nathan had been diagnosed at age five with
attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and had taken
Ritalin for a year. Alice thought the drug greatly helped her son,
slowing him down enough so that he could listen and process
information. She and her boyfriend both felt drugs made the boy
much easier to be with; further, their own reduced stress eased
them so much that they were now able to consider other
alternatives for Nathan, such as nutritional supplementation.
Proponents of psychiatric drugs attest that they
"work," meaning they alter mood, thought, and action.
They also "work," of course, in that they assuage the
medical community's expectation that drugs be used to
"treat" these children. I believe that fully informed
adults should have every right to voluntarily use any drugs they
wish, as long as they don't endanger others in doing so. Children,
however, are not able to give fully informed consent to drug use -
especially those under six years of age, a group in whom we are
witnessing a dramatic increase in psychiatric drug prescription.1 It
is, therefore, our responsibility as adults to ensure every
possible opportunity for optimal development for our children, to
protect and defend our children from powerful toxic drugs,
particularly those prescribed for psychiatric purposes.
Like Alice, a large percentage of adults who take psychiatric
drugs or give them to their children would prefer to avoid them -
and yet they capitulate and use them because the drugs provide
relief: from tension, fear, and desperation, as well as from the
external strains of judgment and coercion. Lawrence Diller, author
of the best-selling book Running on Ritalin, argues that:
"The 700 percent rise in Ritalin use is our canary in the
mineshaft for the middle class, warning us that we aren't meeting
the needs of all our children, not just those with ADD. It's time
we rethought our priorities and expectations unless we want a
nation of kids running on Ritalin."2 Dr. Diller decries
the trend (as I do in my book The Wildest Colts Make the Best
Horses), contending that this increased reliance on drugs
reflects a society in distress. Rather than try to force our
children to shrink into situations that do not meet their needs,
he states, we need to take responsibility for our society.
Diller himself is, however, torn by the same conflict many
parents have concerning Ritalin. On the one hand, he says:
"As a citizen I must speak out about the social conditions
that create the living imbalance. Otherwise I am complicitous with
forces and values that I believe are bad for children." On
the other hand, though, he concludes: "As a physician, after
assessing the child, his family and school situation, I keep
prescribing Ritalin. My job is to ease suffering and Ritalin will
help round- and octagonal-peg kids fit into rather rigid square
educational holes." 3
This seemingly contradictory stance is the same one Alice and
millions of other parents face. It's not as if all parents readily
accept the prescription of Ritalin. Alice, in fact, incurred the
wrath of her son's neurologist because she refused to give her son
Adderall, a combination of three different amphetamine-like
stimulants often used as an alternative to Ritalin. Increasingly
over the past ten years or so, millions of parents are nagged by
their children's physicians: "If your child had
diabetes," the doctors taunt, for example, "you'd give
him insulin, wouldn't you?"
"What could I say to that?" Alice asked me. Her
question was not so much a call for information as it was a need
to express her hopelessness. It was encouraging to me that she was
angry, for anger is a great antidote to hopelessness. She was mad
about the treatment she had received from prior medical and mental
health professionals, as well as the lack of support from two
opposing drug camps. Before I would hazard a possible response for
that neurologist, Alice and I talked about the feelings of relief,
guilt, and anger the Ritalin issue had caused for her family.
Finally, I gave her what would have been my response: the
diagnosis of ADHD is, itself, fraudulent.
ADHD: Nothing but a Sham
A condition such as diabetes carries detectable physical
evidence of disease - abnormal blood sugar levels, evidence of
pancreatic malfunction - justifying medical treatment. Families
confronted with the "wouldn't you give insulin" argument
could begin by asking the neurologist to provide medical
evidence that a disease requiring treatment exists. Between
1993 and 1997, neurologist Fred Baughman corresponded repeatedly
with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Drug Enforcement
Agency (DEA), Ciba-Geigy (now Novartis, manufacturers of Ritalin),
and top ADHD researchers around the country - including the
National Institute of Mental Health - asking them to show him any
article(s) in the peer-reviewed scientific literature constituting
proof of a physical or chemical abnormality in ADHD and thereby
qualifying it as a disease or a medical syndrome. Through sheer
determination and persistence, Dr. Baughman eventually got these
entities to admit that no objective validation of the diagnosis
of ADHD exists.4
Prescribing Ritalin for something that is not a
"disease" does not, in my estimation, constitute a
legitimate practice of medicine. If ADHD is not a disease,
treating it medically constitutes a fraud. Yet many physicians are
true believers in medically treating "mental illness,"
despite the consistent lack of scientific evidence of
"mental illness" as a "disease."5
Herein lies the conflict for parents like Alice.
The Significance of Oppression Theory
Victims of oppression are not only blamed for their condition,
and usually thought to be deserving of their inferior position,
they are eventually conditioned to accept it as their reality. As
the great American writer James Baldwin stated: "It's not the
world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you,
if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough,
you begin to do it to yourself."6 In what may be the
ultimate power play, a victim is, over time, conditioned to
internalize, accept, and ultimately, forget about the very fact
that they are oppressed.
There are two specific forms of oppression that are pertinent
to the discussion of psychiatric drug use for children. The first
is adultism - the systematic mistreatment of young people by
adults simply because they are young. Like other forms of
oppression, adultism is self-perpetuating: when we are treated
poorly as children, we internalize the idea and feelings that life
is unfair; that rank and power should be used for personal
advantage; and that we are somehow unworthy of respect, incapable
of clear thinking, and unable to become our own authority.
The second form of oppression is what I call psychiatric
oppression: the systematic mistreatment of people labeled as
"mentally ill" - including children diagnosed with
fictitious illnesses such as ADHD. Institutionalized in our
society, psychiatry is also guided by a worldview that embraces
biopsychiatry.7 Juxtaposed with adultism, psychiatric diagnosis and
treatment enforce the message that an "ADHD child" is
inadequate, defective, unworthy of complete respect, and in need
of drugs to control and cope with the effects of his or her
Lies My Doctor Told Me
What exactly does it mean to "help round- and
octagonal-peg kids fit into rather rigid square educational
holes?" I believe there are at least six fallacies that
underlie the rampant prescription of drugs like Ritalin to our
1. "Social adjustment is good."
While the ability to adjust socially may be important, it is not
always a "good" thing. In its most extreme form,
social adjustment leads to conformity and compliance, which has
resulted in dire social phenomena, including slavery and
genocide. This seems a particularly aberrant notion in a society
like ours, which is so deeply grounded in the quest for
individualism, free speech and association, and the
"pursuit of happiness."
2. "Children must learn to conform."
When a child fails to adjust to school, we should at the very
least think about our abilities to consider the child's needs.
It is certainly important for children to learn how to get along
in various situations, and how to avoid drawing sanction upon
themselves. Nevertheless, young children must be enabled to
express their unique gifts within their communities. It is a
mistake to force our children to fit molds imposed upon them
according to the needs and conventions of the adult order.
3. "Failed social adjustment causes suffering."
In our competitive culture, we tend to view mistakes as
negatives to be avoided. It is hard to accept the notion that
mistakes can be good, and actually, in fact, are the way we
learn. We are obsessed with the notions of success and failure.
We judge a child's actions as success or failure according to
our expectations and demands, not through the eyes of a
developing child. Eventually, the child internalizes both the
standard and the evaluation: "I failed to live up to the
expectations, therefore I am a failure." I would argue that
it is not failure that causes suffering, but rather it is
oppression - in the form of adultism - which imposes arbitrary
standards, and an adult shame-based worldview. This is what
causes children to feel and think of themselves as failures, and
therein lies their suffering.
4. "A physician's job is to ease suffering."
Certainly it is - through the practice of medicine that
incorporates compassion - not labeling, coercion, or guilt.
5. "Ritalin helps children conform."
Not always. Sometimes it makes them "psychotic,"
sometimes it makes them aggressive. Other times Ritalin makes
children anxious or nauseous. It can make some children feel
suicidal. And for some children, Ritalin has been a deadly
prescription. 8 When it "works" well, the child is
observed to produce better in the classroom. This, the research
shows us, is the only positive short-term outcome. There are no
positive long-term effects in any aspect of child functioning -
social, behavioral, or academic - associated with the use of
6. "Therefore, giving your child Ritalin lets me ease her
In an 1854 speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Abraham Lincoln
said, "I would consent to any great evil, to avoid an even
greater one."10 Many parents feel the compulsion to punish or
discipline their child in hopes that even greater misfortune might
not befall them. Given the reality of today's oppressive society,
and its lack of resolve to truly meet the needs of our children,
the argument goes, Ritalin may seem a better choice than continued
pressure, disapproval, and sanction.
This "ease the suffering" argument reveals one of the
most consistent justifications for the use of psychiatric drugs
for children: on one level or another, Ritalin absolves each
person of his or her responsibility. The child is not responsible,
he's "sick." Parents, doctors, the community, the
medical and educational institutions - the society at large - are
relieved of their duty to meet the real needs of that child. We
prescribe drugs; the child conforms; the educational and medical
institutions don't have to change; and our standards of
"normalcy" are passed on to the next generation of
drug-assisted children learning to fit into the mandated square
hole. We have endless justifications that allow us to conform to
oppression with a seemingly clear conscience, while an estimated
5,000,000 children are on methylphenidate, and another 3,000,000
on other toxic drugs - given to them by adults who care for them.
Some may call this "medicine," but a growing group of
parents and others are beginning to see it as institutionalized
|Suffer the Children?
|Although ADHD does not
exist as a real disease, it is a very real label imposed on
children, with very real consequences for the child. On a
physical level, the recommended drugs are toxic, and they
have a long list of deleterious effects.1
Regarding Ritalin, the fact is that
"methylphenidate looks like an amphetamine
(chemically), acts like an amphetamine (effects), and is
abused like an amphetamine (recreational use, Emergency Room
visits, pharmacy break-ins)."2 (parentheses mine)
On a psychological level, Ritalin produces two especially
harmful effects. It deprives a child of the right to develop
a character and a way of living with self and world, in a
drug-free state. Ritalin also creates a burden of shame, a
conviction that a child who is on this drug is somehow
defective, unworthy, and neither lovable nor even acceptable
in his or her "natural" state.
These stimulant drugs for children truly are about
enforcement of our culture's preeminent value: productivity.3
Amphetamines, as we have learned over the course of the past
century, increase output. But of course, with amphetamines,
the trajectory is usually crash and burn. In the US,
millions of adults, and an alarmingly increasing number of
children, take psychiatric stimulants like Prozac to
"keep going and going." Similarly, we give
children as young as two years of age stimulant drugs to
help their "impaired" productivity. But wherein
lies the suffering, in the "failure" to produce or
achieve, or in the so-called remedy we prescribe?
Breggin, Talking Back to Ritalin (Monroe, Maine:
Common Courage Press, 1998).
Eberstadt, "Why Ritalin Rules," Policy Review
94 (1999): 24-44.
John Breeding's new e-book, The Necessity of Madness and
Unproductivity: Psychiatric Oppression or Human
Transformation? (Online Originals, 2000), for an
explanation of how psychiatry acts to enforce our social
mandate of relentless productivity. (Available at www.onlineoriginals.com.)
Ritalin Use - Simply
Out of Control
|Psychiatric drug use by
children in US schools is turning into an enormous problem.
In 1970, an estimated 150,000 US children were taking
Ritalin. By 1980, the estimates were between 270,000 and
541,000 - double the numbers of a decade before. By 1990,
the numbers doubled again; close to 900,000 children were on
Ritalin. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) estimates there
was a 700 percent increase in the production of Ritalin
between 1990 and 1997, 90 percent of which was consumed in
Based on the available data, a realistic estimate of the
number of school-age children on Ritalin today in the US is
5 million. Considering that Ritalin - like other
amphetamines, a Schedule II controlled substance that
carries a significant risk of abuse - represents 70 percent
of the total prescriptions for amphetamine-like drugs, it is
reasonable to estimate that over 7 million US schoolchildren
are on some sort of stimulant drug. We can add close to 2
million children now on so-called antidepressants, so it
appears that over 8 million children in this country are on
psychiatric drugs today. According to census data from 1999,
the US population for ages six to 18 is just under 51.5
million, meaning approximately 15 percent of our
schoolchildren are on psychiatric drugs. In many schools and
districts, the estimations are quite higher, as much as 20
or 40 percent. A study reported this year in the Journal
of the American Medical Association revealed that
Ritalin prescriptions for two to four year olds increased
200 to 300 percent between 1991 and 1995.1
In an era when we are constantly told to protect our
children from drug abuse, it seems there are some very
disturbing exceptions to the rule.
|1 Zito et al., "Trends in the Prescribing of
Psychotropic Medications to Preschoolers," JAMA
283 (2000): 1025-1030.
1 J. M. Zito, D. J. Safer, S. dosReis, J. F. Gardner, M. Boles,
and F. Lynch, "Trends in the Prescribing of Psychotropic Medications
to Preschoolers," JAMA 283 (2000): 1025-1030.
Nation of Kids on Ritalin," an essay posted on Lawrence Diller's
See the website of neurologist Fred Baughman, MD, for information on the
ADHD fraud: home.att.net/~fred-alden.
Peter Breggin's book Toxic Psychiatry (St. Martin's Press, 1991),
or the journal Ethical Human Sciences and Services, for evidence on
the pseudoscience of biopsychiatry.
between James Baldwin and Nicki Giovanni, November 4, 1971, "A
Dialogue," cited in L. R. Frank, ed., Random House Webster's
Quotationary (New York: Random House, 1998).
John Breeding's book The Wildest Colts Make the Best Horses
(Austin, Tex.: Bright Books, 1996) or his website, www.wildestcolts.com,
for a fuller exposition of the belief system of biopsychiatry.
Fred Baughman is currently involved in three Ritalin death cases. His
essay "Who Killed Stephanie Hall?", available on his website
(see Note 4), tells of one of these three and includes a brief review of
relevant cardiac literature. An article by Caroline Kern in the Oakland
Press, April 14, 2000, entitled "Prescription Drug, Not
Skateboard Accident, Killed Clawson Teen," reports on the most recent
death in March of 14-year-old Matthew Smith of Clawson, Michigan.
Peter Breggin, Talking Back to Ritalin (Monroe, Maine: Common
Courage Press, 1998) or Lawrence Diller, Running on Ritalin (New York:
Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1998) for summaries of this research evidence.
Lincoln, speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Peoria, Illinois, October 16,
1854. Cited in L. R. Frank, ed., Random House Webster's Quotationary
(New York: Random House, 1998).
|This article is adapted
from Dr. Breeding's website, "The Wildest Colts Make the Best Horses". It also appeared in Mothering, Issue
101, July/August 2000.
Reprinted with permission of the author and Mothering Magazine.