Like many other reasonably well-informed Americans, Arizona high school teacher Tarah Ausburn worries that a lot of naturally energetic kids may be needlessly diagnosed with Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and prescribed pharmaceutical stimulants.
That's why she put a bumper sticker on her Prius, asking: "Have you drugged your kid today?"
The sticker caused a parent to complain, and, last January, cost Ausburn her charter-school job. Yet the resulting e-furor, which has steadily grown since that time, has predictably focused on Ausburn's freedom of speech, ignoring what to me is the more interesting question of why so many "progressives" - including Prius-drivers and defenders of all kinds of underdogs -- attack parents for a problem caused by much more powerful culprits?
It's worth pausing to note that the drugged-kids sticker was just one of 62 on Ausburn's car. Other slogans included: "Buck Fush" and "Religions are Just Cults with More Members." It was the only one, however, to ignite job-threatening controversy. And understandably.
The Centers for Disease Control recently reported that close to one in 10 U.S. children - a total of 5.4 million - has been diagnosed with ADHD, as reported by their families. Leading researchers believe that while some children indeed may be medicated unnecessarily, many more aren't getting the help they need.
Despite what you might read, so often, on the Web, authentic ADHD is a real and potentially devastating problem, which many scientists believe has to do with a glitch in the way the brain processes dopamine, a chemical crucial to motivation and attention. Resulting symptoms can include distraction, forgetfulness, impulsivity, and a painfully low threshold for boredom.
Children with this condition endure all sorts of torture, indirectly and sometimes directly, and particularly from our antiquated, factory-style school system. Until fairly recently, as I've reported in my new book on ADHD, at least one school district in Massachusetts made hyperactive kids wear lead vests to slow them down.
More often the pressures are more subtle. Kids are simply told they're trouble-makers, or lazy, or not trying hard enough. Parents get a similar message: if they just tried harder, their child wouldn't be so disruptive in class, wouldn't be losing friends, and wouldn't be miserable.
Surely some parents could and should be doing more for their children. Yet consider some of the odds against that, primarily including a mental health system shifting rapidly away from time-consuming and costly interventions such as "talk therapy" in favor of pharmaceuticals, plus the simple fact that, especially in a down economy, parents are often simply too strapped for time and money to be driving kids to regular therapists' appointments. With schools cutting back on funds for sports and PE, it has also increasingly become a parent's job to make sure kids get regular healthy exercise, which has been backed up in studies as helping concentration and behavior, but which usually also takes a lot of driving and money.
All this offers context to the fact that nearly 70 percent of those 5.4 million diagnosed kids have been prescribed medication, usually during a quick visit with his or her pediatrician - and probably millions of them are a great deal luckier than the millions who don't even get that. For many, the meds can be a helpful intervention, even as pharmaceuticals alone will never be a reliable path to mental health - they're more of a stopgap measure, especially for families in crisis.
The bottom line? Mental health, like so much else in our culture, is increasingly becoming a privilege of the rich -- in particular when it comes to the healthiest, but costliest and most time-consuming interventions. And this fact becomes all the more poignant in view of additional research that shows kids with untreated ADHD are more likely to become addicted to drugs and alcohol, and that parents of kids with ADHD are significantly more likely to divorce.
So why doesn't Ausburn have a sticker on her Prius reading "Save the Parents" or even "Fix the Schools - and the Mental Health System While You're At It"? I asked her.
In a telephone conversation this week from her home in Phoenix, where she's busy looking for a new job - no small task for a teacher in this economy - Ausburn said she felt so strongly that meds are doing kids harm that when offered the chance to quell the controversy by removing her sticker or parking her car off-campus, she declined.
She told me she had looked into the problem and found that meds not only can stunt a child's growth but can "stop the brain from fully developing." Having researched this issue for more than three years, during which I wrote a book on ADHD, I know the first point has been documented - there is a small risk, on average, of a small loss of height if the meds are taken continuously -- but the second has no support anywhere I've seen.
Ausburn also told me that meds make a child more likely to use cocaine in later life, a statement contrary to research findings. When I asked for her source, she cited Peter Breggin, the psychiatrist and author of "Talking Back to Ritalin," among other books.
For many years, Breggin has been leading the charge against pharmaceutical stimulants, sometimes with salient arguments, other times with questionable facts. His Wikipedia page cites several instances in which judges have questioned his credibility and at least once disqualified his testimony.
As Ausburn and I continued to talk, she conceded that she has seen some children who've needed and been clearly helped by taking stimulants. She also agreed that our one-size-supposedly-fits-all educational system is getting a lot tougher on quirky kids, especially as class sizes inexorably grow. Later she sent me an email acknowledging that I was right about the cocaine research. She added: "The whole point of my bumper stickers is to increase contemplation and dialogue about a variety of social issues, and I recognize that I have just as much to learn about this topic as anyone else."
Thanks, Tarah - but I'm still waiting for that "Save the Parents" sticker.
Copyright Katherine Ellison