ADHD Treatment Controversies

Some people are concerned that children, particularly active boys, are being overdiagnosed with ADHD and are unnecessarily put on medication. Other ADHD treatment controversies include concerns about the long-term safety of treatment with stimulant drugs, as well as the potential for drug abuse.

ADHD Treatment Controversies: An Overview

Concerns have been raised that children, particularly active boys, are being overdiagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and thus, are receiving psychostimulants unnecessarily. However, recent reports have found little evidence of overdiagnosis of ADHD or overprescription of stimulant medications.
Indeed, fewer children (2 percent to 3 percent of school-aged children) are receiving ADHD treatment than suffer from this disorder. Treatment rates are much lower for selected groups such as girls, minorities, and children receiving care though public service systems. However, there have been major increases in the number of stimulant prescriptions since 1989, and methylphenidate is being manufactured at 2.5 times the rate of a decade ago.

More Prescriptions Through Better Diagnosis?

Most researchers believe that the increased use of ADHD medications reflects better diagnosis and more effective treatment of a common condition. Medical and public awareness of the problem of ADHD has grown considerably, leading to longer ADHD treatment, fewer interruptions in treatment, and increased treatment of adults with ADHD. Adolescents and younger girls with ADHD, who were underdiagnosed in the past, are being identified and treated.
Nonetheless, some of the increase in use may reflect inappropriate ADHD diagnosis and treatment. In one study, the rate of stimulant treatment was twice the rate of parent-reported ADHD, based on a standardized psychiatric interview. While many children who do meet the full criteria for ADHD are not being treated, the majority of children and adolescents who are receiving ADHD medicine did not fully meet the criteria. These findings may reflect a failure of proper, comprehensive evaluation and diagnosis rather than a failure of the diagnostic criteria, which are clear and validated by research.
A diagnosis of ADHD requires the presence of impairing ADHD symptoms in multiple settings for at least 6 months. Although fidgeting and not paying attention are normal, common childhood behaviors, DSM-IV criteria reserve a diagnosis of ADHD for children in whom such frequent behavior produces persistent and pervasive problems. An adequate diagnostic evaluation requires:
  • Histories to be taken from multiple sources (parents, child, teachers)
  • A medical evaluation of general and neurological health
  • A full cognitive assessment including school history
  • Use of parent and teacher rating scales
  • All necessary adjunct evaluations (such as assessment of speech and language).


These evaluations take time and require multiple clinical skills. Regrettably, there is a shortage of appropriately trained professionals.

Family practitioners are more likely than either pediatricians or psychiatrists to prescribe ADHD drugs and less likely to use diagnostic services, provide mental health counseling, or provide follow-up care. The American Academy of Pediatrics published a policy statement in 1996 on the use of ADHD medications for children with attention disorders, concluding that use of medication should not be considered the complete treatment program for children with ADHD and should be prescribed only after a careful evaluation.
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