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Michael Phelps Just Said “No” to ADHD Drugs

Today's post is from Chris Mercogliano, author of In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids' Inner Wildness. He has been a teacher at the Albany Free School since 1973 and co-director since 1985. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, and he is also the author of Making It Up As We Go Along, and Teaching the Restless: One School's Remarkable No-Ritalin Approach to Helping Children Learn and Succeed.

Restless Michael Phelps didn't need drugs to 'fly into Olympic history. And at the tender age of 11 he decided he didn't need them to negotiate his way through school.

Growing up in what by several accounts was an authoritarian household—his father was a state trooper and in an interview in the New York Times his mother describes herself as "stern"—Michael was diagnosed ADHD at age 9. His parents' on- again, off-again relationship had finally ended in divorce two years earlier, and his teachers had been complaining since kindergarten that he was restless, talkative, and easily distracted in class. These, of course, are all classic "symptoms" of a supposedly genetic neurochemical imbalance in the brain, and so a pediatrician suggested to Michael's mom that she put him on Ritalin.

According to Mrs. Phelps, Ritalin marginally improved her son's school performance and dulled him into peacefully doing the minimum on his nightly homework assignments. But he felt stigmatized by having to go to the nurse's office at lunchtime to swallow a pill every day, and after two years Michael pleaded to be taken off the drug. "I don't want to do this anymore, Mom. My buddies don't do it. I can do this on my own." Fortunately for Michael, his mother believed in him deeply and so she listened.

The rest, as they say, is history. At 15, Michael became the youngest American swimmer to compete in the Olympics in 68 years. He finished fifth in the 200-meter butterfly, had his first world record at 16, and now he is the most decorated athlete in Olympic history.

As for Mrs. Phelps, she has been hired by Ortho-McNeil-Janssen, the manufacturer of the popular ADHD medication Concerta, as a "celebrity mom" who will be available to answer questions on a company-sponsored Website about her experiences with ADHD. All of this despite the fact that her son never took this particular drug, and, as we just learned, that he rejected its pharmaceutical cousin because it made him feel so badly about himself.

In her most recent post on a drug company-sponsored Facebook community, Mrs. Phelps starts off with some excellent advice for parents of children struggling to fit in in conventional schools. She recommends talking to the child's teacher about creating the optimal classroom environment; communicating frequently with the teacher outside of the usual format of report cards and parent/teacher conferences; facilitating increased social interactions outside of school; and encouraging challenging and meaningful extracurricular activities like sports, clubs, and volunteering in the community. She also advocates for providing healthy food and even getting kids to participate in its preparation.

I might add parenthetically that when the editor of my book, Teaching the Restless, did the above, her second-grade-son no longer needed the Ritalin he had begun taking the previous year and went on to have a successful experience in the Boston public schools.

Perhaps indicating a nagging ambivalence, it isn't until midway through her Facebook post that Mrs. Phelps drops the other shoe and slides into the drug company party line that all parents of "ADHD kids" should follow the National Institutes of Health (NIH) guidelines and "treat" their children with one or more biopsychiatric drugs and a Skinnerian program of checklists and continual rewards for compliant behavior.

Then, immediately following the post there is an "interview" with Ortho-McNeil-Janssen's "expert-in-residence" Patricia Quinn, MD, a pediatrician and mother of four, three of whom are diagnosed with ADHD. Unlike Mrs. Phelps, Dr. Quinn cuts straight to the NIH chase: ADHD is an incurable neurological disorder that one can only hope to control with biopsychiatric drugs and behavior mod. Toward the end of the interview she also mentions in passing the additional option of parenting skills training to teach parents techniques for managing their child's behavior. Never, however, does she make any of the suggestions to parents that Mrs. Phelps began her blog post with.

Parenthetical note #2: In November, 1998, NIH held a Consensus Development Conference on ADHD and Its Treatment in order to clear away once and for all the doubts and uncertainties that have continued to cloud the issue. Consensus Conferences are convened in order for experts to present scientific data about controversial treatments to an independent jury, which, after hearing the evidence, writes a final consensus statement. The fact that, historically, NIH-funded research has always had a decidedly pro-ADHD bias, and that the presenting experts were all selected by Dr. Peter Jensen, an increasingly staunch defender of biopsychiatric approaches to dealing with non-conforming children, makes the conclusions reached by the jury surprising indeed. After raising fundamental questions about whether ADHD is a valid diagnosis, the jury also admitted the failure of researchers to produce enough data to indicate that ADHD is due to brain malfunction. Their consensus statement ends with a deadening thud: "Finally, after years of clinical research and experience with ADHD, our knowledge about the cause or causes of ADHD remains speculative. Consequently, we have no strategies for its prevention."

That Dr. Quinn is able preach the ADHD gospel without so much as a hiccup brings me to a third and final parenthetical note. In 1987 a group of parents of children diagnosed with ADHD and two treating psychologists near Miami, Florida, founded what on the surface appeared to be a non-profit advocacy and support organization called Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD). What most people don't know is that CHADD is almost entirely funded by Novartis, the manufacturer of Ritalin, which for many years was the only drug prescribed for the treatment of ADHD, and that its primary function is to lobby both the general public and various drug regulatory agencies on Novartis's behalf.

The moral of this convoluted tale? A couple come readily to mind, one being the inspiring story of a young man who overcame troubling family circumstances and a school environment that didn't suit his high-energy, physical nature, found something he passionately loves to do, and then excelled at it beyond anyone's wildest dreams. The second is a far darker one, of a pharmaceutical industry that pretends to be selling children's medicine, masks itself in many forms, and stops at nothing to ply its wares to an unsuspecting clientele.

Here's hoping that Michael Phelps's incredible transcendence will somehow escape the drug company's clutches, just the way he managed to outswim their drugs.

You might also be interested in Chris Mercogliano's previous posts on Oppositional Defiant Disorder and how to get kids to love reading, and Mark Hyman's Beacon Broadside post about Debbie Phelps.