Invest in Families, Not Meds

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We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid.
     — Dr. Michael Anderson, quoted in the New York Times

If that quote doesn’t send chills up your spine, I don’t know what will.

Dr. Anderson (and other docs, also quoted in the NYT) are prescribing ADHD medications — stimulants — to  help young, low-income kids function in school.

Photo by Arenamontanous via Flickr

Let me repeat that again: Doctors are prescribing high-powered stimulant medication to young children because, in many cases, they feel it’s the kids’ best chance. These kids are poor. They live in low-income communities and attend low-income, often poor-quality, schools. And our politicians and public have decided that it’s far too expensive to improve the kids’ living circumstances or schools, so these kids are living — and trying to learn — in sub-par environments. The kids’ school environment isn’t likely to change. The families’ financial situations are not likely to change. So the docs are using one of the only tools at their disposal: they’re prescribing stimulant medication, which has been shown to improve school performance. These docs know that education is the kids’ best chance at a better future, and they knew that the odds of the schools and communities suddenly meeting the very real needs of these kids and families is infintesimal. So they prescribe the meds.

“We might not know the long-term effects [of stimulant use in young children], but we do know the short-term costs of school failure, which are real. I am looking to the individual person and where they are right now,” Dr. Anderson says in the NYT article, Attention Disorder or Not, Pills to Help in School.

I am outraged. Outraged! OUTRAGED!

We value our children so little in this society that we would rather stuff drugs into their young bodies and brains than invest in programs and policies that could improve their world.

And boys may be disproportionately feeling the effects of this resistance to investing in kids’ well-being. According to The Boys Initiative, 3 times as many boys as girls are diagnosed with ADHD. Who knows how many of them actually have ADHD, and how many are simply prescribed the drugs as a way of helping them fit into an educational mold that doesn’t fully consider their needs? In the Times article, Dr. Anderson says “the children he sees with academic problems are essentially ‘mismatched with their environment.'”

I’ve written before about the mis-match between boys and school. (See Boys & School.) And I’ve written before about the need to support families if we want children to succeed in school. (See Supporting Families & Education.)

But I’m frustrated. I can write about these topics until my fingers are numb, but unless and until our society begins to recognize the importance of families, and value children, it will all be for naught. Our children, and our boys in particular, will continue to suffer.

We can talk all day about the importance of individual responsbility, and the role of government, and still get nowhere. Because at the end of the day, America is still a country that is long on talk and short on support. We say our children are the future, but vote down school referendums, demonize teachers and stash our children in big-box institutions that may or may not meet our kids’ needs so we can work and earn the almighty dollar. We say that parenthood is an honorable profession, but refuse to support policies that would allow parents to spend meaningful time with their children.

We refuse to admit that raising great kids takes time. And we refuse to admit that it’s important to invest in all kids.

Kids in poor neighborhoods are not throw-aways. They are kids, just like yours. It doesn’t matter what their parents did or didn’t do. It doesn’t matter what their grandparents did or didn’t do. What matters is that they have needs and desires and potential, and we, as a society, as turning away from them.

We are stuffing meds down their gullet instead of working to improve their lives.

That has to stop.

I can’t stop this neglect alone. But I can, and will, write about it. I can, and will, work within my community to make sure that families have the resources they need to thrive. And I can — and will — vote for policies and politicians that support kids and families.

Our kids deserve support, not pharmaceutical shortcuts.

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