Is there a link between ADD/ADHD medication and lack of motivation?

Failure to LaunchHardly a week goes by without the publication of new research into ADD/ADHD. The fact that the scientific community is paying such close attention to the condition is, of course, to be welcomed. I have, and will continue, to profile such research on this site as it becomes available. What worries me, however, is how many research projects are pointing to other factors as the cause of ‘ADD Like’ symptoms. We have, for example, recently looked at studies pointing to factors as diverse as sleep deprivation and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) as causing symptoms that are often mistaken for ADD/ADHD. These studies are just the tip of the iceberg, which means that thousands of ADD/ADHD misdiagnoses are made each.

The problem of misdiagnosis would not have been all that serious if the only thing that diagnosis led to was a renewed focus on the role of lifestyle factors (e.g. diet, sleep patterns, parental discipline) as a means of behaviour modification. The fact is, however, that an ADD/ADHD diagnosis almost invariably leads to a child being placed on powerful medication. It is as if we are sleepwalking into a world where we think that it might just be a good idea to medicate the next generation at levels that previous generations would have found almost impossible to believe.
The sad fact is that most prescriptions are made by professionals who are a) Not adequately trained to make a proper ADD/ADHD diagnosis and b) Under pressure (especially from teachers) to come up with the ‘right’ diagnosis.

Many doctors who immediately prescribe drugs for the treatment of ADD/ADHD justify their actions by saying that they are simply trying to see if it will work. There are two huge problems with this approach. It is firstly highly irresponsible to reach for the ‘nuclear option’ first! In most other areas of medicine physicians will start with the least invasive and dangerous treatment options first. It seems, however, that this piece of common sense good practice does not apply when it comes to children with behavioural issues (that may or may not be due to ADD/ADHD). The second problem is that ADD/ADHD drugs act like ‘steroids for the brain’. They will lift performance regardless of whether a child has ADD/ADHD or not. This is why Adderall is such a hotly traded commodity on college campuses around exam time! The fact that it ‘helps’ is therefore no proof of the existence of ADD/ADHD or an indication (due to the existence of the law of diminishing returns) of long term improvement. The big question is: What price will your child (and society) have to pay for a brief spike in performance?

The answer to the above question is the reason why I am so passionate about alerting people to the existence of non-narcotic solutions. It is my belief that ADD/ADHD medication can be implicated in the epidemic of addiction that is destroying thousands of lives. There have also been several cases in which these drugs were cited as one of the contributing factors to violence and suicide. These outcomes are terrible and reason enough to do your best to keep your child off ADD/ADHD drugs. They could, however, be only a small part of the picture. There is more and more evidence that ADD/ADHD drugs could be one of the leading causes of one of the most pernicious and troubling aspects of modern life: Unmotivated boys and young men

In his excellent book Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men, Dr. Leonard Sax analyses the problem of young men who are ‘failing to launch’ (i.e. still living with their parents in their late twenties and early thirties). He makes it clear that this is a complex issue that do not lend itself to easy generalisations. He does, however, ask the question whether ADD/ADHD medication could not at least be partially to blame. He points to an experiment where young male rats were given doses of the types of medication commonly used for the treatment of ADD/ADHD. The long term result was that the rats become lazy and unmotivated! This was due to the fact that the drugs damaged a key area of the brain that regulated motivation. Dr. Sachs rightly point out that this experiment has not yet been replicated in humans but as he so brilliantly puts it: “Would you like to volunteer your son for trials?”

The implications of this research are troubling to say the least! Could it be that we are reaping the whirlwind (in the form of thousands of young men failing to realise their potential) because we are, as a society, so prone to reach for the medicine cabinet rather than investigating alternatives. I want to strongly urge you to quit following the crowds and to stand firm on the conviction that it is a fallacy that the solution to everything can be found in a medicine bottle. Especially as the bottles under discussion contain substances that are dangerous in the here and now and could have consequences that will come back to haunt you decades down the line!