One of the consequences of the medicalization of everything is that we’ve come to define adolescence as a medical condition and treat it aggressively. Some day people will look back on what we are doing to kids the same way we look back today on the lobotomies and electroshock of decades ago. Until then, I guess we’ll keep buying snake oils. This article discusses the lack of scientific basis for the Ritalin binge we’re on. It’s a shorter version of the argument and evidence presented in the three-part series in last year’s The New York Review of Books by a different doctor.
THREE million children in this country take drugs for problems in focusing. Toward the end of last year, many of their parents were deeply alarmed because there was a shortage of drugs like Ritalin and Adderall that they considered absolutely essential to their children’s functioning.
But are these drugs really helping children? Should we really keep expanding the number of prescriptions filled?
Oddly enough this question is completely off the table in my school. You can’t pose it in class because so many students are on Ritalin or other drugs. All of the weight of our medical institutions have told them they get bored reading two sentences in a row or confused when doing algebra because something is wrong with them. They have a condition. They can’t help it. Take this pill, and school will be over soon. Challenging this approach is seen as discrimination: these students have a condition and need to be accommodated. So teachers and student-oriented admin are reduced to wringing their hands about how to help all these poor brain-damaged kids sit dazed through classes long enough to be given a diploma.
If we took our jobs seriously, we be figuring out how to teach ordinary, bursting-with-energy and interested-in-other-things-than-school teenagers the basics of adult communication: how to listen to others and how to speak, read and write with basic care and formality. These are not natural skills. You learn them. You used to learn them (at least in part) in schools. Yet, when our school brought in a speaker to discuss students with special needs, the three most common “disabilities” they identified among our student population were stress, anxiety and feeling overwhelmed.
Really? Students learning a variety of new material in a new school meeting new people, all while working, and going out with friends and having dramatic, messy first relationships feel stressed, anxious and overwhelmed? I believe it! Those constitute a medical disability? Now way. Or to quote Big Daddy, “Bull!”; and Brick, “Mendacity!” These are normal, healthy symptoms of teenage life. They go away as teenagers learn adult skills like planning, making responsible choices, deferring somethings for later, saying “no,” and as they become better at the reading and writing skills they need to do well in school. In other words, as the teenagers learn and grow up, they will be fine.
Most students will not find learning these useful skills from middle-aged teachers fun. And it certainly isn’t easy to teach them. Not least because, if you start making headway, students will express their interest by 1) showing up to class and 2) acting not interested. And oftentimes, the more interested they are, the more disinterested they will act. Because they don’t yet know how to express interest like an adult! Is the situation frustrating? Yes. But then, does anyone on the planet think teaching teenagers will not be?!? That’s the job though.
The challenge is figuring out how to deal with your frustration so you can teach what you have to teach. Role-modelling and not being a dick when you’re at the front of the class will go a long way toward making everything work better. But I suppose we could just give all teenagers speed too.
Ugh. Rant over.