Another view on Ritalin controversy


September 11, 1990|By Paul Lavin, Ph.D.

The article entitled "Scientologists triggered Ritalin debate" (8-7-90) contends that the Church of Scientology almost singlehandedly stimulated the Ritalin issue to discredit psychiatry. In fact, there are many professional groups and individual doctors who have been concerned about the over- use of Ritalin long before the Church of Sci-entology entered this debate.

For instance, the American Academy of Pediatrics investigated the wide-spread use of Ritalin in the early 1970s. At that time, many respected clinicians charged stimulant medication was being prescribed indiscriminately and stimulants were being used without real justification for prolonged periods of time without adequate supervision.

And, even though there was little reliable information about the possible behavioral and longterm consequences, the drug industry was exerting considerable effort to increase the use of stimulants with children who had attention deficit disorder.

During the early '70s, it was estimated that about 200,000 children were being treated with stimulant drugs. This is in marked contrast with the recent estimate by the National Education Association, which indicated that about 1 million children are being treated with stimulant medication. Thus, since the early '70s, the use of drugs such as Ritalin has increased fivefold.

Certainly such figures should be alarming to any practicing professional, educator or parent in light of what we currently know about the efficacy of drug treatment.

Many people are either unaware or are ignoring the following facts about Ritalin. Although Ritalin produces a calming effect and increases attention span, there is little or no evidence that it improves academic performance. Ritalin does not teach a child to control impulse, to plan ahead, or to assume responsibility for his or her behavior.

Also, the Physician's Desk Reference clearly points to a number of negative side effects associated with the use of Ritalin and specifically states that "sufficient data on safety and efficacy of long-term use of Ritalin in chidren are not yet available."

The reality is that Ritalin is still often over-prescribed. Even though more viable interventions such as dietary control, behavior modification, family counseling and special educational services are needed, Ritalin frequently continues to be the primary and only treatment employed.

This "quick fix" mentality has changed little until recent events triggered the Ritalin debate. While the Church of Scientology might have been partly responsible for resurrecting this issue, there are many responsible and concerned groups and individuals who firmly believe Ritalin should be used only as a last resort.

The overuse of Ritalin is a discredit to the medical profession itself, not just practitioners who are involved with the child's mental health.

* Dr. Lavin is a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Towson State University.

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