Student Well-Being

For Students Too Poor for ‘Smart Drugs,’ a Doctor Steps In

By Ross Brenneman — October 23, 2012 1 min read
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Last week, my colleague Sarah D. Sparks wrote about the ascension of “smart drugs” in schools. Pupils increasingly look to drugs like Ritalin and modafinil to help them focus, and many parents and doctors support it.

One of the ethical dilemmas involves social equity; experts argue that healthy people using drugs represent, as the article says, “the ethical equivalent of athletes taking steroids to get an unfair competitive advantage—particularly because wealthier parents may be better able to pay for the drugs and the medical evaluations to prescribe them.”

Into that void steps Dr. Michael Anderson, a Georgia pediatrician recently featured in The New York Times and one of those doctors who prescribes students Adderall without their having a firm attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder diagnosis. He says he will prescribe an Adderall treatment to the disadvantaged and struggling who need a leg up, but not to those students already doing well but who want a little extra edge.

Anderson doesn’t think that formal diagnosis is necessary, either, because there’s no such thing.

“There’s no X-ray. There’s no broken bone that’s bent. There’s no lab test,” he said in an interview with WSB-TV in Atlanta.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ADHD diagnoses increased an average of 5.5 percent per year from 2003 to 2007. But the National Institutes of Health notes that difficult children are often incorrectly labeled with the disorder, even as many children with ADHD remain undiagnosed.

To Anderson, too many parents want to pin their children’s lack of success in school on something physical, when the real problem is the school itself.

“I don’t have a whole lot of choice,” Anderson said to the Times. “We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid.”

As for alternative methods, there are few studies on the effects of hugs, instead of drugs. But maybe the last word on “smart drugs” can go to the Rev. Sir Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, D.F.A.:

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.