Alexis and Ethan Rocafort of Ball Ground, Georgia, take medication for ADHD to help them stay focused in school. The children, ages 12 and 9, respectively, were prescribed the medication – which their father says they need – by Dr. Michael Anderson.
Except Alexis and Ethan don’t have ADHD. The children’s parents, Amanda and Rocky, maintain that both children have never had an attention deficit disorder. Neither do they have any learning disabilities. Their father says that they merely take the medication “to improve their grades, which are ‘blah.’ ”
Dr. Michael Anderson prescribed the Rocafort children classic ADHD medications to help them in school. Anderson used stimulants such as Ritalin, Concerta, or Adderall for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. However, the doctor also calls ADHD “fake” and “made up,” stating that the diagnoses distracts from what he considers “the children’s true ill: poor grades in inadequate schools.”
Anderson, a Cherokee County pediatrician, is an outspoken member of a group of doctors who believe that prescribing medications is one of the only means to help low-income kids succeed in school. According to Anderson, low-income families have no choice, since public school systems are failing to engage and educate students.
“I don’t have a whole lot of choice,” said Dr. Anderson. “We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid.”
Anderson, who doesn’t really believe that ADHD exists, prescribes medications to children on “instinct.” The pediatrician maintains that he is a “social justice thinker,” who believes that, if the school system is not going to give kids opportunities to learn, then he will help them with medication. In other words, he’s just “evening the scales a little bit.” Children with academic problems, he asserts, are merely “mismatched with their environment.” Because the families of these children can’t afford tutors, behavioral aids, and therapists, Anderson notes that “medication becomes the most reliable and pragmatic way to redirect the student toward success.”
Many parents rejoice in Anderson’s theory. Jacqueline Williams’ three children have been “diagnosed” with ADHD by Dr. Anderson. Eric, 15, Chekiara, 14, and Shamya, 11, all take Concerta. Concerta is a long-acting stimulant. Although her children – who were struggling with listening in school and focusing on homework – resisted at first, Williams insists.
“My kids don’t want to take it, but I told them, ‘These are your grades when you’re taking it, this is when you don’t,’ and they understood,” Williams notes. Medicaid covers the majority of her children’s doctors visits and prescription costs.
Anderson maintains that he will not prescribe medication to children who are already doing well in school. There is a rising issue in the US of teens and college students taking ADHD medications to hyper-focus on academics and raise their already-good grades. This, Anderson states, is not the movement he is encouraging.
While experts note that some “wealthy students abuse stimulants to raise already-good grades in college and high schools,” they see the reasoning in the same medications “being used on low-income elementary school children with faltering grades and parents eager to see them succeed.”
“We as a society have been unwilling to invest in very effective nonpharmaceutical interventions for these children and their families,” said Dr. Ramesh Raghavan, a child mental-health services researcher at Washington University in St. Louis. Dr. Raghavan, who is an expert in prescription drug use among low-income children, adds, “We are effectively forcing local community psychiatrists to use the only tool at their disposal, which is psychotropic medications.”
Dr. Nancy Rappaport, a child psychiatrist who works primarily with lower-income children and their schools, agrees. “We are seeing this more and more,” notes Rappaport. “We are using a chemical straitjacket instead of doing things that are just as important to also do, sometimes more.”
While come experts agree with Anderson’s approach, there are other who are concerned that exposing children to these medications opens up a dangerous possibility for harmful side effects. Doctors who praise the use of stimulant drugs as treatment for classic ADHD fear that healthy children are being exposed to “unwarranted physical and psychological risks.” Reported side effects of drugs such as Adderall and Concerta include “growth suppression, increased blood pressure and, in rare cases, psychotic episodes.”
Alexis and Ethan’s father, Rocky Rocafort, doesn’t see any harm in medicating his kids to help them in school. “If they’re feeling positive, happy, socializing more, and it’s helping them, why wouldn’t you (give them the medication)?” He asks, “Why not?”
Another of Rocafort’s children, Quintn, was diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed Adderall five years ago. Now 11, Quintn was taken off the medication when he became suicidal.
Readers: Would you give your child a stimulant drug to help them improve their grades, regardless of whether or not they have an attention disorder?