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Are we a pill-popping society?

ADHD medication as an example.

ADHD medication is a difficult subject for most parents of children with this disorder. On the one hand we want to give our children the best advantage we can, while on the other we are scared about all the side-effects and stories we hear of children turning into zombie-like characters after popping a pill. Personally, I have seen the positive effects of psychostimulants on the effects of ADHD and also the negative. A scary thought it that medication does not even work for close to 30 % of children using it. The reasons for this vary but also include the fact that parents are not consistent in giving the medication to their children, which does not help in any way.

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To me, the facts should speak for itself and parents should have a say/decision on whether they want to go the medicine route. Fact, many children benefit from medication showing few or no few side-effects. Fact, ADHD medication does not cure the disorder, it provides help on the spot. Fact, some schools put pressure on parents to have their children put on medication. Fact, ADHD continues into adulthood. Fact, medication does not address behavioural problems. Fact, in the USA approximately 5 % of children are on ADHD medication while only 0.05 % in France are.

The last fact is an interesting one. A recent article by Dr Marilyn Wedge ( shed some light on this strange observation. It seems that in the United States, child psychiatrists consider ADHD to be a biological disorder with biological causes. The preferred treatment is also biological -- psycho stimulant medications such as Ritalin and Adderall. French child psychiatrists, on the other hand, view ADHD as a medical condition that has psycho-social and situational causes. Instead of treating children's focusing and behavioral problems with drugs, French doctors prefer to look for the underlying issue that is causing the child distress -- not in the child's brain but in the child's social context. They then choose to treat the underlying social context problem with psychotherapy or family counseling.

Sociology professor, Manuel Vallée, highlights that another advantage of the French approach, which is more holistic and psycho-social, allows for considering nutritional causes for ADHD-type symptoms -- specifically the fact that the behavior of some children may be worsened after eating foods with artificial colors, certain preservatives and/or allergens. This does not happen in the USA or RSA.

There is another interesting point that Dr Wedge highlights in her article and which deserves further discussion. French parents are much more structured in their approach to rearing children than their USA counterparts. Children are not allowed, for example, to snack whenever they want. Mealtimes are at four specific times of the day. French children learn to wait patiently for meals, rather than eating snack foods whenever they feel like it. Consistently enforced limits, in the French view, make children feel safe and secure. Clear limits, they believe, actually make a child feel happier. Finally, French parents believe that hearing the word "no" rescues children from the "tyranny of their own desires." And spanking, when used judiciously, is not considered child abuse in France.

It seems then, that French children do not need medication to control their behaviour but their American counterparts do. Of course this is a simplified argument and it ADHD medication is not only given to the “hyperactive” child with regular emotional outbursts, but at the very least it should make some of us think before we pop a pill, shouldn’t it?

Written by the Health PI – Prof Deon Visser. For any comments or questions please use our form below or e-mail him directly at

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