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Child in Mind

Huge increase in ADHD diagnosis in young women a worrisome trend

"I know its my ADHD acting up," a mother of three young children recently said to me as an explanation for her inability to recall a particular piece of information. My observation, in the setting of my behavioral pediatrics practice, of increasing numbers of mothers of young children being diagnosed with ADHD is in keeping with a recent report from Express Scripts. This report, based on pharmacy claims data, showed a 53% rise in writing of prescriptions for ADHD in adults from 2008-2012, with "the largest gains seen in women age 26-34, climbing 85%."

A psychiatrist colleague of mine took this data at face value, saying that "ADHD is genetic" so with the rise in diagnosis in children, it makes perfect sense that there should be a parallel rise in diagnosis in adults. 

But there are big holes in this argument. Certainly problems of regulation of attention, behavior and emotion, that are all called "ADHD," have a familial component. But we are far from identifying a specific genetic cause. These qualities, both in children and adults, represent a complex interplay between genetic vulnerability and environmental effects.  

So how else might we explain this rise in writing of prescriptions for this group, many of whom are young mothers? In today's fast-paced society, parents of young children are often overextended and overwhelmed. In my practice many fathers work very long hours, leaving mothers alone to manage everything. In the absence of extended family this can be highly stressful. Physical activities such as yoga, running or even walking have a calming organizing effect on the brain, but often these mothers are unable to carve out time for themselves during the day. Sleep deprivation has a huge role to play. There is a well-established link between sleep deprivation and symptoms of distractibility, inattention, and hyperactivity. This may be an inevitable part of parenting young children. But often there are ways to improve sleep if parents have the opportunity to make sense of the situation and take the time to fix it. But often there is not this time, so families get stuck in a reactive mode, with a vicious cycle setting in as lack of sleep makes them increasingly less able to think clearly.

I have concerns about this trend of diagnosing and treating ADHD, particularly in this population of young mothers. If we label this behavior as a disorder and prescribe a pill, we are not placing responsibility (blame) squarely on the mother? Do we not have a responsibility as a society to care for mothers to support their efforts to care for the next generation? Will the motivation to find more creative solutions, such as flexible parental leave, and valuing of self-care (the airlines recognize this need in the instruction to adjust your own oxygen mask before your children's) be lost?

These medications are not without harmful effects. About a year ago, a young woman, not a mother but in this age group, wrote poignantly in the New York Times of her struggle with Adderall addiction that took hold in an environment of ever increasing demands for productivity.

I am probably not alone in wondering about an alternative explanation to that of my psychiatrist colleague. Clearly this trend is a boon for the pharmaceutical industry. Could it be that some very clever people in marketing saw an opportunity, and set about selling "Adult ADHD" to both a general and a professional audience? If so, they have certainly been very successful.

Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

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