Let boys be non-stigmatised boys

Boys will be boys ...

“When I was a boy …”

Many a stirring yarn has been started with those exact words, as aging men relive their childhood adventures with sentimental grandiosity increasingly taking over from detail as each passing year blends in with the blur of distant memories.

Ps Greg Gibson wrote an article that caught my attention as it floated across my Facebook feed last night.  Gibson is a pastor in Knoxville, Tennessee.  His “when I was a boy” story recalled his happy times as an energetic child, a serene innocence punctuated by two years of Ritalin-induced misery.

His point: “I think we should let boys be boys, and non-medicated ones at that. Therefore, parents, if at all possible, don’t medicate your boys.”

I think I understand what he’s trying to say, that it’s ok to be an energetic child and to see the extra energy as a strength to harness, not a weakness to control.

That would be fine, except that in trying to normalise energetic behaviour, he also winds up demonising Ritalin.  It may not have been his intention, but whenever someone respected in the community says something negative about stimulant medication or ADHD, it reinforces the oppressive stigma attached to those who suffer from it.

Ps Gibson’s fundamental assumption, that normal but energetic children are being misdiagnosed as ADHD and therefore unnecessarily medicated, happens far less often than the opposite – children with ADHD are misdiagnosed as energetic children that just need to be taught how to control themselves.

Personally, I don’t know of any parent who ever wanted to medicate their child with Ritalin.  If anything, it’s the opposite, because if your child’s on Ritalin, then you must be a lazy parent, or given them too much sugar, or too much screen time, or not hugged them enough as babies, or didn’t practice vaginal seeding, or whatever other form of parent-guilt is being perpetrated by the media at the time. Parents will do everything they can in their power to avoid using Ritalin, because of a culture that blames and shames.

Unfortunately, this means that children who could be helped by Ritalin or other stimulant medication are left behind, because ADHD isn’t the mislabeling of normal energetic children who just need better structure, or better posture, or who learn differently.  ADHD is a real disability, a dysfunctional lack of planning and control that’s abnormal compared to other children, affecting their entire lives.

For example, these children find it hard to play with other kids because they can’t follow basic social rules like the rules of games, or waiting their turn.  These children find school difficult, because they can’t concentrate for long enough to focus on completing a multi-step task, or have a long enough attention span to make new memories for words or facts.

One of my patients, a little boy about seven years old, was brought in by his mother because a chiropractor wanted me to arrange a blood test on his behalf.  When I asked why, the mother said the little boy had dyslexia which the chiropractor was ‘treating’ (actually, this chiropractor was blaming a disease that didn’t exist, and wanted me to arrange a test that was resigned to the pages of history, but that’s another story).  When I talked to the mother about the child’s symptoms, it was pretty obvious that he had ADHD, amongst other things.  After seeing a developmental paediatrician to confirm the diagnosis, and taking Ritalin for just one week, his reading improved three whole reading levels, and after a month, he had not only caught up, but had passed a number of his class-mates.

This is a real life example of how ADHD can hold children back, and how stimulant medication can help.  While there are always exceptions to the rule, stimulant medications help more often than they hinder.  They’re sometimes the difference between a child meeting his full learning potential, or being unnecessarily held back, languishing at the bottom of his class as his peers go further ahead in leaps and bounds.

Our culture needs to move on.  We need to stop our social prejudices making life more difficult than it already is for children and their families who battle with ADHD.  We need to see that medications for ADHD can be the difference between a life of learning and a life unfairly held back.

Let’s change the tune.  Rather than saying, “Let boys be non-medicated boys”, how about we say, “Let boys be non-stigmatised boys.”  It’s only through the break-down of the stigma surrounding ADHD and stimulant medications, that all boys (and girls) can truly meet their full potential, whether they have ADHD or are just a bit more energetic.

If you want more information on ADHD and its treatments, this is a good place to start: http://www.rch.org.au/kidsinfo/fact_sheets/ADHD_an_overview/

If you are concerned that you or your child might have ADHD, talk to your local GP or paediatrician.


Ritalin may not help children with ADHD?

A few days ago, the media had a frenzy over a new study about the use of Ritalin (methylphenidate – a stimulant medication) for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) (http://goo.gl/Ht9GKF).

ADHD is always good for a headline grab because it is so polarizing. It’s like the new HIV – everyone’s got an opinion on ADHD, and most of them are facile or just plain ignorant. That doesn’t stop the armchair experts from sharing their opinions, and this new Cochrane review into the studies of Ritalin for ADHD just gives them another chance to vent their fatuous spleens.

Like a couple of the comments posted at the end of The Australian article. One suggested that ADHD was a disease invented so they could find another drug to treat it, and suggested that mobile phone games were the problem. Another thought he was rather humorous when he trotted out the tired old chestnut that it’s all the parents fault: “ADHD has been nicnamed {sic} ‘Absent Dad At Home’ syndrome!”  Sorry, but no one’s laughing. 

We need to take a step back from the uneducated and unwarranted opinion of the self-titled experts, and look at what the study actually said. To do that, lets have a look at what the study was, what it looked at, and what the results were. We’ll then compare the results with some of the other options available for treating ADHD, so we can make an informed decision about how to best manage ADHD.

First, what study are we talking about? The study in question is a Cochrane Review lead by Storebo, titled “Methylphenidate for children and adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)” [1]. (You can read the official press release here: http://www.cochrane.org/news/researchers-urge-caution-prescribing-commonly-used-drug-treat-adhd or the abstract here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD009885.pub2/abstract)

Cochrane reviews are scientific works that pool the best research on a particular topic and combine it into a mega-study, to get the best results available for a particular topic. First, all the papers written about the topic in question are found. The poorest quality studies are discarded, leaving studies that are suitable quality and are fairly uniform in how they did their research, so that the results from each study can be combined into one uniform result.

This process of meta-analysis increases the statistical power of the results enormously. The Cochrane Collaboration has been at the forefront of meta-analysis and has developed specific rules about the quality of evidence it accepts for its reviews, making a Cochrane review as trustworthy as medical research can be.

So what did the meta-analysis of methylphenidate for children with ADHD actually show? In short,

  • A strong improvement in the Teacher-Rated Symptoms score,
  • A strong improvement in the Teacher-Rated Behaviour score,
  • Small-to-moderate improvement in the ADHD rating scale,
  • Small increase in minor side effects such as poorer sleep and appetite, and
  • No increase in serious harm from methylphenidate.

So … that sounds pretty positive overall. Why the big hullabaloo? Why are these experts supposedly urging caution?

The concerns the researchers had was with the quality of the studies. Overall, the research that’s been done thus far has been deemed low quality by Cochrane’s standards. So they were cautious about suggesting that the results were reliable given the quality of the studies they had to work with. And that’s fair enough. Better quality studies are required to confirm the findings of the current Cochrane review, and this should be done as a matter of priority.

Unfortunately, the reviewer’s cautious approach to the research has been misinterpreted as a concern about the drug itself.

There are two important points here: 1. Accepting the limitations of the quality of the research it’s based on, the review still found a moderate effect of methylphenidate, and 2. Other “treatments” for ADHD have been proven in separate meta-analyses to be wholly ineffective.

There’s a little bit of statistical interpretation required here, but the Standardised Mean Difference (SMD, or sometimes called Cohens d) for the Teacher-Rated Symptoms score and Teacher-Rated Behaviour score was -0.77 and -0.87 respectively. The negative value here doesn’t mean that it’s bad; it’s just the arbitrary direction the reviewers chose to show improvement favouring Ritalin. Then there’s the SMD itself. The SMD takes into account the variability of the results overall, using a specific formula to take that into account.

The SMD used here doesn’t equate to the other value the reviewers used for the side effect statistics, which they expressed as a relative risk. So you can’t look at the numbers given and directly equate the power of the improvements with the chance of side effects of the medication.

However, it’s been said that an SMD of 0.2 is a small effect size, 0.5 is moderate, and 0.8 is large [2], so the effect of Ritalin given by the study was actually a strong effect. In comparison, the relative risk of minor adverse effects given by the review was 1.29, or a 29% increased risk, which is relatively small.

Then there’s the important consideration of the effects of other treatments for ADHD. The effect of Ritalin maybe backed by low quality evidence, but there’s no evidence of any effect for the other so-called ‘treatments’ for ADHD. As per the review by Sonuga-Barke (2013), there is a tiny amount of evidence for supplementation with omega-3 and 6 fatty acids, but none for:

  1. Elimination diets (including those for ‘antigenic’ foods, specific provoking foods, general elimination diets and ‘oligoantigenic’ diets)
  2. Food colouring (including certified food colours, Fein-gold diets and tartarazine)
  3. Cognitive training (including working memory specific, and attention specific training)
  4. Neurofeedback, and
  5. Behavioural intervention [3]

So no matter how inane or facile the arm-chair experts may be, there is no evidence that Ritalin for ADHD is harmful. There is a small risk of minor effects such as reduced appetite and sleep, but there is evidence (albeit low quality evidence) that it has a strong positive effect. In comparison, there’s no evidence of improvement from any other treatment that’s been adequately studied.

No drug is perfect, and that includes Ritalin. But it’s certainly not the devil in pill form either. It’s time to stop demonizing it, and ignorantly criticizing those children and their families who need it.


[1]       Storebo OJ, Ramstad E, Krogh HB, et al. Methylphenidate for children and adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The Cochrane database of systematic reviews 2015 Nov 25;11:CD009885.
[2]       Faraone SV. Interpreting estimates of treatment effects: implications for managed care. P & T : a peer-reviewed journal for formulary management 2008 Dec;33(12):700-11.
[3]       Sonuga-Barke EJ, Brandeis D, Cortese S, et al. Nonpharmacological interventions for ADHD: systematic review and meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials of dietary and psychological treatments. The American journal of psychiatry 2013 Mar 1;170(3):275-89.