What’s Causing the Global Rise of ADHD?

December 3, 2014 by Dr. Yannick Pauli

ADHD is by no means a contagious disorder, but its diagnosis and treatment has increased as much as tenfold in North America, South America, and Europe. According to the research of Peter Conrad, a social sciences professor at Brandeis University, ADHD is not so much a medical plague as an economic and cultural one. His paper, which was published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, examines the exorbitant rise of ADHD in Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Brazil, and provides fascinating insights on trends that are causing it.

Just how much of an “epidemic” is ADHD these days? According to the research, the diagnosis of ADHD among school-age children in the UK grew from less than 1% in 1990 to 5% in 2014. In Germany, there were 58 million daily doses of ADHD prescription drugs taken in 2008, compared to only 10 million daily doses in 1998. France and Italy see a slower rate of growth, which can be attributed to having stricter pharmaceutical drug laws. But even these countries may have more relaxed laws in the coming year. Meanwhile, Brazil is seeing an increase in ADHD advocacy groups, many of whom have close relationships with pharmaceutical companies.

Conrad and co-author Meredith Bergey identified five trends that contribute to ADHD’s growth:

1) Drug companies are effective lobbyists, and have spurred some countries to relax marketing restrictions on stimulants.

2) Psychoanalytic treatment with talk therapy is giving way to biological psychiatry—treating psychological problems with drugs.

3) More European and South American psychologists and psychiatrists are adopting the American-based Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) standards, which are broader and have a lower threshold for diagnosing ADHD.

4) Vocal ADHD advocacy groups work closely with drug companies to promote pharmaceutical treatment.

5) The easy availability of ADHD information and online self-diagnosing checklists empowers people to ask for prescription treatment.

In other words, what’s really driving the global ADHD epidemic are pharmaceutical companies, and advocacy groups that support them under the guise of ADHD awareness campaigns. For instance, many ADHD information websites have checklists with questions like, “Do you have difficulty concentrating? Do you consider yourself to be disorganized?” These checklists turn all sorts of behaviors into medical problems that can easily be solved by swallowing a pill.

Ultimately, there is no magic bullet for the behaviors we’d like to change in our children and ourselves, and no single drug can overcome the environmental and lifestyle factors that affect behavior. If you sincerely believe that your child has a problem that needs professional intervention, don’t make medication your first solution. Instead, consult a medical team that can identify what’s really causing these behaviors, and address these issues with a holistic treatment plan.