It’s high time America woke up from its dream and saw the alarming rate of young casualties addicted and suffering from the drugs that are supposed to be helping them
Wash your face.
Brush your teeth.
Eat your breakfast.
Pack your bag.
Take your prescription drugs.
Go to school.
Sound familiar? Maybe not to those of us who have grown up outside of the United States, but to the millions of children living in the ‘Land of the Free’ that is exactly what their daily morning routines consist of. CCHR International, a mental health watchdog, reported that almost 8,500,000 American children aged 0-17 were being prescribed psychiatric drugs. There are 11 per cent of American children aged between 4 and 17 who have been diagnosed with ADHD, with more than 6 per cent of them taking medication.
It is not only the number of children being diagnosed that is alarming, but also the increasing rate of those diagnosed. Go back to 1997 and only 3 per cent of American children had been diagnosed with ADHD, a figure in line with previous averages. Between 1997 and 2003, the number of those diagnosed increased by 3 per cent each year. Between 2003 and 2007, cases increased by 5.5 per cent each year. This increased to 16 per cent between 2007 and 2013. Clearly those drugs that are being prescribed are working wonders …
Now don’t mistake my sarcasm for naivety. Before changing careers I was a youth worker for five amazing years, working with young people from all walks of life. My most sacred memories are taking disadvantaged youth from inner city Boston, many suffering from mental health issues, and working with them in the picturesque woods of Maine. I know from first-hand experience that sometimes medication can work wonders in enabling a young person to battle whatever demons they may face. In the right context I do not dispute that medication can play an invaluable role in helping someone overcome his or her issues. But in America it has become the easy option, the ‘go to’ for doctors when faced with a hyperactive or distracted child. Prescription drugs now seem to be the number one option in helping young American youth fight mental health issues.
The inspiration for this article was a new song ‘Kevin’ by the US rapper Macklemore (ft Leon Bridges), addressing the dependency of American youth on medication. The lyrics sung include revealing lines like: ‘Can’t cure my disease, without killing me’. Therein lies the paradox: the necessity of using medication to help fight mental health issues, but you must then fight to wean yourself of the medication.
It is a thought-provoking line. What the billion-dollar drug industry doesn’t mention on the stickers of those orange, white-capped bottles is the classification the US Drug Enforcement Administration gives to the majority of their stimulants. Ritalin, Adderall, Vyvanse and Concerta among many others, are classified as Schedule II stimulant drugs which have a ‘high potential for abuse’ and have the potential to lead ‘to severe psychological or physical dependence’. Now combine the devastating potential these medications pose with the knowledge that across America thousands of doctors are conducting short, uninformative tests and subsequently prescribing millions of children these powerful and dangerous pills. It is nothing short of a drug-infused cocktail for disaster.
What happened to children and adolescents simply exhibiting a range of behaviours because they are mentally and emotionally developing? Do these pills really hold the answer to all of these children’s ‘behavioural issues’? Our teenage years are perhaps the most emotionally confusing years of our lives. In the past society accepted this for what it was, an emotionally volatile and unpredictable time. Forget for a moment the ridiculous numbers presented earlier. You should see the jaw-dropping changes in a teenager’s personality when they take medication like Xanex. It’s truly heartbreaking to watch their personality literally slip away, their mannerisms disappearing, to be replaced with a frighteningly placid, humourless shell of a human being. In the aforementioned song, Macklemore perhaps again puts it best describing his friend as: ‘walking around the city, looking like a mannequin’. This friend died from a prescription drug overdose. Seems the DEA were right about those drugs having a high potential for abuse and dependence.
This is an issue the World Health Organisation reported as threatening the achievements of modern medicine; the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention classified it as an epidemic, and it is something that is killing more people than car accidents every year. When are we going to stop taking the lazy, ‘easy’ route, and stand up to protect our children and young people? Pharmaceutical companies need to be held accountable, doctors need to be monitored and supported in providing alternative approaches, parents need to be educated and the youth need to be better engaged and understood.
America, it’s time to start rethinking your approach to diagnosing and dealing with mental health issues, and to stop simply trying to prescribe doses of the American Dream.
Matthew Maclure is a Research Consultant in the Social Development team at the Overseas Development Institute.