Questioning the long-term benefits of Ritalin

October 04, 1998|By Gayle Vassar Melvin | Gayle Vassar Melvin,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

For many parents of children with attention deficit disorder, Ritalin is nothing short of a miracle drug. One dose, and their formerly impulsive offspring are able to focus on schoolwork or play peacefully with peers.

For manufacturers, Rita-lin's sales figures seem miraculous - up 700 percent since 1991.

But a behavioral pediatrician in Walnut Creek, Calif., is sounding a caution: Are children's long-term needs being overlooked in favor of a quick medical fix?

That's a question Law-rence Diller explores in the new book "Running on Ritalin: A Physician Reflects on Children, Society, and Performance in a Pill" (Bantam, $25.95).

Diller often prescribes Ritalin, but says that using it without considering what else needs to be changed in a child's environment troubles him.

"The demands on children are greater than ever, while the support systems are less," Diller says.

Among those demands is what Diller calls an "educational paranoia," where parents worry their children won't survive in an increasingly competitive world if they aren't academically successful.

While it's not unusual to worry about high school grades, some parents become concerned when their 4-year-old fails to master preschool. But not all 4-year-olds are developmentally ready for an academic preschool, says Diller.

"That doesn't make them abnormal," says Diller. "But if they are being exposed to things like the alphabet, and told they have to learn it, some of them will not be interested, and they could look pretty ADD."

There may also be an element of materialism in the push for Ritalin, says Diller. The majority of Ritalin users come from white, suburban families enmeshed in the American ideal of success and acquisition. Putting a child on Ritalin may be seen as increasing his chances for success - better grades will lead to better colleges, which will eventually lead to better-paying jobs.

"Ritalin will remain very popular in this country as long as the culture believes the way to acquiring emotional satisfaction is through acquiring material goods."

Pub Date: 10/04/98

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