ADHD affects more people today than ever before. Estimates put the number at nearly 20 million people in North America who have been diagnosed with it. Chances are, you know at least one person who has been affected—it could be a family member, friend, co-worker, a student, your child, or perhaps it is you.
ADHD has infiltrated many aspects of our world. We find it in the workplace, the boardroom, schools, and in the community. Also, because prescription drugs to treat it are so prolific, it is also a major money-maker in the health and medical industries.
A new book tackles some of the hard questions about ADHD and how it is being diagnosed. Called Beyond ADHD: Overcoming the Label and Thriving, it is co-authored by Jeff Emmerson and Robert Yehling.
I talked to Yehling about ADHD and how it is impacting society. Beyond ADHD is his actually his second book in the mental health field, following on the heels of Just Add Water, the biography of autistic surfing star Clay Marzo. Yehling has authored 12 books, and co-authored or ghostwritten eight others. He is an expert in the field, a marathon-runner, a coach, and a journalist with credits that include being the editor and senior writer for the Billboard Music Awards and American Music Awards publications, the past editor of American Idol Magazine, and early in his career wrote for RollingStone.com.
What is ADHD “really” and why is it on the “rise”, in your opinion?
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a series of behaviors that include difficulty focusing and concentrating, excessive moment or talking, the need to feel constantly “on the go”, tendency to interrupt or intrude, reluctance to do tasks that require sustained mental effort, inattentiveness, difficulty with details, and easy to distract. These were codified into a “symptomatic checklist” in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM), the “bible” of mental health conditions and treatments used by medical and psychological experts the world over.
In the forty years since ADHD was fully accepted as a behavioral disorder, and especially the 17 years since DSM-IV broke it down into a nine-behavior checklist, diagnoses have soared, to a point that about 10% of all North Americans have either been diagnosed or checked for ADHD.
I believe doctors are quick to diagnose, due to overcrowded schedules; the average time spent examining a patient for ADHD before a diagnosis is rendered is 15 minutes. I also feel our overactive society, mass media, social media addictions and dependence on devices has to do with our collective loss of attentiveness, and that educators and parents are often too quick to seek remedies for children who might be a little overactive, quick-minded, or unable to concentrate like their next door neighbor.
What are some of the conditions that mimic ADHD?
According to medical experts we interviewed, and a number of peer-reviewed articles, there are as many as 100 medical conditions with points in common to ADHD. With ADHD, you have nine defined behaviors for a doctor to consider; if a patient registers six or more, that’s considered a valid diagnosis.
Ten of the biggest “crossover” conditions, all of which have some behavioral components consistent with ADHD, are Learning Disabilities, Autism, Anxiety, Vision problems, Hypoglycemia, Sleep Disorders, certain Allergies, PTSD, Vitamin B Deficiencies, and Early Onset Bipolar Disorder.
That’s quite a collection of disorders, all of which are prevalent today. I could point out three to six common characteristics between each of these and ADHD. That’s too many for us to diagnose ADHD and prescribe powerful medications in an average of 15 minutes!
What happens when someone is diagnosed with ADHD?
As I mentioned, a child or adult is referred (or ordered) to a doctor for suspected ADHD “symptoms” (really, behaviors). Those referring most often are parents, employers, therapists, and school nurses and educators (the latter is illegal in many states, by the way). The doctor uses the DSM checklist and his/her own expertise, and in an average of 15 minutes, diagnoses ADHD.
In virtually all cases, that patient is prescribed a powerful psychopharmacological drug, such as Ritalin, Adderall or Vyvanase, to regulate the brain chemistry leading to the disruptive behavior or overly active system.
How is ADHD currently being treated and, in your opinion, how should it be treated?
Both Jeff Emmerson and I strongly feel the pharmaceutical solution should be a last resort, not a first resort; in fact, Jeff has spent the past several years strongly advocating for all the other ways to treat ADHD to his 800,000 Twitter followers and in his writings. These other ways, all of which offer far more enriched lives and outcomes than pure drug therapy, include behavioral therapy, change of diet, renewed emphasis on fitness and exercise, checking vision thoroughly (you’d be amazed how many kids with vision problems get misdiagnosed for ADHD; prominent Canadian optometrist Dr. Patrick Quaid estimates in the book up to 25-percent); plugging children into areas that truly interest them, greatly limiting use of devices and screens, and increased time with parents and siblings – especially when the kids are young, reading to them, playing board games, things like that.
We view the ADHD epidemic as a combination of a societal breakdown and an over-eagerness to prescribe, which is supported to the tune of billions of dollars by the pharmaceutical manufacturers and nearly all members of Congress. However, modalities such as Functional Medicine work to the way of treatment I just laid out.
For example, in today’s climate, as my 9-year-old self, I would have been diagnosed as having ADHD. Luckily for me, I turned nine in the late ‘60s, so instead, my teachers challenged me further in ways I loved, I found distance running and baseball, I read constantly, I started writing stories that led to the career I continue to practice and enjoy, and my parents pushed me hard on academics. My grandmother, an artist and athlete with a beautiful soul (she loved Native American customs), helped me develop the creative side and intuition, and taught me how to channel energy productively. That’s what we need to do for those diagnosed today.
What is a 360-degree learner and how can we, as a society, help them?
We are all 360-degree learners at our most innate, primal level. Our deepest ancestors needed to be constantly aware of their entire surroundings. The Paleo-Indians who walked the Bering land mass to populate North America 20,000 years ago memorized every plant, trail, land feature, and animal. They were aware of everything with this “hunter-gatherer” mind. It was a matter of survival.
Today, our survival needs are largely met in a far easier and more convenient way. However, we’re all born with this innate ability to be aware of everything. Some never lose it, while others tap into it during inspired moments — novelists, musicians and artists all know the feeling. Children definitely have it; look at how they play, observe, absorb, learn. Everything is possible.
Unfortunately, when we reach school age, we’re suddenly thrust from a place of freedom into schedules, sitting for six hours a day, exercising on a more limited basis, and learning from prescribed materials – some of which we might not like – rather than our own curiosity. And, the societal rules begin. And they keep coming. My feeling is we need to help kids and adults return to the 360-degree way of learning, where we take on something and learn everything we can about it, and explore its possibilities. It’s a beautiful way of being, but when it crashes against our needs for education, employment and the like, frustration, lashing out, shutting down, and inattentiveness and lack of focus can arise — all textbook ADHD symptoms.
How do you feel about medications that treat ADHD?
As with all conditions, I feel medications should be prescribed as a last resort, not a first resort. Unfortunately, we live in a culture that is very drug-dependent, whether legally or not. We also live in a market where pharmaceutical companies have been allowed to advertise direct to consumer since 1989, and their powerful messages have convinced doctors, parents, educators, employers and some therapists that only drugs can bring relief to ADHD. And now, doctors can prescribe them to patients as young as 2 ½ years of age. How do we even know how a 2 ½ year old will turn out to be?
These medications alter one’s biochemistry and do create dependency. They are very powerful. Some diagnosed with ADHD do need them, without question, but I propose that we try to dial the prescribing back until after we’ve tried the other therapies mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, Big Pharma spends billions on sending out the exact opposite message, and with 532 of the 535 currently sitting members of Congress receiving campaign contributions from them, and an administration cutting all other means of relief for ADHD and other mental health and behavioral conditions, we’re behind the eight-ball.
Are gadgets like fidget spinners helpful for people with ADHD?
Yes, because they promote attentiveness and focus. However, some other very powerful activities are playing board games, reading increasingly longer books with more complex storylines, exercising far more, eating diets higher in protein and high-value cabs, and lower in sugar and other system-agitating substances, and simply putting down devices and taking time to talk with each other and pay attention to what the other person says. If it sounds like “the good old days,” when we knew each other and everyone was active, well, it was — and it can be again.
What advice can you give to someone who has, or has a child or loved one, with ADHD? Also, can you address adults and business professionals, too?
Before you rush off to get a prescription for your child, talk to a behavioral specialist or mental health therapist, and make some lifestyle changes. Functional Medicine doctors and consultants are also great, because they work with the entire life history of the person. If your child needs to curtail sugar or other irritants from their diet, make it a family-wide practice — everyone will be healthier, often including the home environment.
Also, does your child squint or complain about not being able to see the chalkboard or smartboard? Is s/he getting enough exercise? Drinking enough water (that’s ½ gallon a day)? Is s/he spending enough time with stated interests, rather than or in addition to what school or work gives them? Can you marry activities to channel the added energy most living with ADHD have?
These questions apply to adults as well as children. Not only do they bring us back to our authentic selves, but they promote greater purpose in life and allow those with ADHD to feel like vital members of their families, schools, jobs and society, rather than being tagged as “hyper” or “crazy”, as is often the case now.
For more information about Robert Yehling and his books, visit his Word Journey’s blog.
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