Alarming figures for ADHD in the United States were published over the weekend. They suggest that as many as one in five high school age boys have been diagnosed as suffering from “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder”, while 11 percent of all school-age children have received such a diagnosis. That’s around 6.4 million children, representing a 53 percent rise in the past decade, reports the New York Times.

I have always been sceptical about the medicalisation of what seems to be fairly common childhood behaviour — fidgetiness that annoys adults. Admittedly, there also seems to be something new in the sheer number of kids who are extremely hyperactive today. Even experts in the field are amazed at the new figures:

“Those are astronomical numbers. I’m floored,” said Dr. William Graf, a pediatric neurologist in New Haven and a professor at the Yale School of Medicine. He added, “Mild symptoms are being diagnosed so readily, which goes well beyond the disorder and beyond the zone of ambiguity to pure enhancement of children who are otherwise healthy.”

About two-thirds of those with a current diagnosis receive prescriptions for stimulants like Ritalin or Adderall, which are said to improve the lives of those with ADHD but can also lead to addiction, anxiety and occasionally psychosis. And the numbers can only rise when the American Psychiatric Association carries out its plan to change the definition so that it applies to more people.

Suggested factors in the trend are over-diagnosis, Big Pharma ads telling parents how their medication can improve a child’s life (sales currently worth $9 billion to the industry!), parental insistence on a medical fix — partly to improve academic performance –and the sharing a selling of drugs among students.

This is what particularly interests me, though: the disorder seems to afflict boys disproportionately, with at least twice as many boys as girls diagnosed in every age group between 4 and 17.

Some obvious reasons spring to mind: boys don’t like sitting still in school and concentrating for long periods (like, 10 minutes?) and tend to fidget under the strain. However, they will remain in one spot for a long time playing video games, which both satisfy their appetite for “action” and at the same time increase it. Many educators recognise the need for different styles of learning for boys and, given that schools and curricula have become more feminised in recent decades, are in favour of single sex schooling to help boys — and probably girls.

But there is another possible factor in this, and it is mentioned in passing by the doctor interviewed in a video with the NYTimes report: “single parent homes”, or, more precisely, homes without a dad, which we know are very common now. The geographical distribution of ADHD in the US tends to underscore this, with a concentration in the Southern states, for example, where single parenthood is widespread, especially among the Black and poor population. Further, the Times reports that some of the highest rates of diagnosis of ADHD occur among children whose parents are poor enough to qualify for Medicaid.

Single, poor struggling moms, boys without the security, firmness and mateship of a dad… sounds like a recipe for behavioural problems to me, and one that doctors and drugs will never solve.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet