OPINION: Are we over-diagnosing children with conditions?

Apr 16, 2023
Source: Getty

When I started teaching, there was no such thing as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – or at least, Australian school teachers had never heard of it. Others insist, however, that there WAS such a thing as ADHD, but that the condition had not yet been given a name. They remind me that we DID have hyperactive children in our classes. That is quite true, but the difference is that we didn’t think of hyperactivity as a medical condition that had to be managed with medication.

We dealt with hyperactivity in the same way that we accepted and worked with the various challenges our students always brought with them to the classroom.

At that time, students who did not thrive in our well-ordered classrooms and on bookish learning stepped out of school and into the workforce as youngsters. They worked in an abundance of unskilled and blue-collar jobs, and without any further qualifications, they were able to build successful lives for themselves. That my students were all so different, and in so many ways, made for a rich and rewarding career. However, that was then and this is now.

In 2022, according to an official government report, one child in every five Australian children has a disability. Let’s repeat that.  Nowadays, one in five Australian children have a disability. The figure is unbelievable to me, but then again, I am picturing children who are blind or deaf or in a wheelchair and such.

I am not considering the hundreds of thousands of children who are diagnosed mostly with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), but also with ASD (autistic spectrum disorder), ODD (oppositional defiance disorder), OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), CD (conduct disorder), neuro-diversity, dyslexia, anxiety or depression.

Statistically, six students in every contemporary classroom (of thirty students) are disabled and will be receiving some sort of treatment (generally drug medication).

What terrible misfortune has befallen our communities to create such an avalanche of disability? Disability advocates will tell you that nothing has changed and that our diagnostic tools have evolved to uncover and identify these hitherto “hidden” conditions.

The thing about ADHD, though – and this may also apply to other conditions mentioned above – is that there is no definitive diagnostic tool. A diagnosis of ADHD relies on subjective assessment, based on observation and a checklist of symptoms, many of which apply to all children (and adults). The condition, therefore, remains controversial.

To understand why a tidal wave of disability has swept across our schools, take a quick look at contemporary Australia. We are living in a society where substance abuse is rife. Domestic violence, homelessness, drug, alcohol and gambling addictions are on the rise.

Over 1.2 million children and young people are living in poverty, a considerable number of them residing with a single parent or in a dysfunctional household. In two-parent households, the norm is that both parents go out to work. Wages are low and interest rates are high.

The gap between the haves and have-nots is ever-increasing. Insecure employment and under-employment abound and are often the only option for unskilled workers.

Children suffer from chronic lack of sleep, mostly due to the ubiquitous presence of social media and online games, and poor nutrition from the overconsumption of junk food. Howzat? Do we really think that well-regulated children will emerge unscathed from that little lot?

The situation for today’s children is further complicated by intense competition in education. Nowadays, anxious parents are demanding silver-bullet solutions and remedies to support and enhance the achievements of their children if they struggle to acquire literacy and numeracy.

With parental hopes and expectations for their children sky-high, their educational and/or social problems are increasingly attributed to a medical condition or disorder. Like behaviour, learning has been pathologized.

An inattentive fidgety child, for example, must have ADHD. A child who cannot read must have dyslexia. A child who misbehaves must have a conduct disorder and so it goes.

Parents are easily convinced that medications that control behaviour while enhancing learning is the answer, but are they right? Are children really sicker today than ever before, or not?

Let me be clear here – although I am tempted, I am not saying that ADHD and other emerging syndromes besetting our children do not exist. They do. What I am saying is that I do not believe they exist in the plague proportions that the statistics suggest.

I am saying that hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children are taking powerful psychotropic medications not because they have a medical condition, but because they are floundering in devastating social and family problems (as outlined above) over which they have no control.

Harkening back to the nickname ascribed to Valium when it was first introduced, I would even go as far as saying that ADHD medication has become the contemporary “mother’s little helper”, a quick fix that works in the short term but is known to be harmful to the patient in the long term.

So, I have outlined my criticisms of the raft of behavioural disorders/conditions that have staked their claim on our children – and remember that our children are our future. If you believe millions of otherwise healthy children are now disabled by such conditions, then we are at odds. If you agree with me that medicalising difficult behaviour and learning problems is inappropriate, then let’s talk about it.

How do we turn back the tide, especially now that otherwise healthy and successful adults are also being diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed medication for it? Indeed, I predict that now Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, has been diagnosed with it, the demand for ADHD meds will soar.

It looks to me that the only winners here are the multi-national pharmaceutical companies (BIG Pharma). For them, ADHD is the gift that keeps on giving. More than a million prescriptions were written for ADHD meds in Australia in 2021. What will the number be in 2023? 

This is a major health crisis. Who’s watching the children?


Disclaimer: The following text is an opinion piece and should not be taken as factual information or professional advice. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of the platform hosting the article. The purpose of this piece is to stimulate discussion and encourage critical thinking. Readers are encouraged to conduct their own research before making any decisions based on the content of this article.


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