In this age of "zero-tolerence" why are so many kids ON RITALIN?BY NANCY KERN
All hail the Ritalin look: it's the latest rage among schoolchildren. Chapped lips, dark circles under the eyes, a catatonic stare.
In my five years as a high school English teacher I became well-acquainted with the look, which appeared most frequently on the faces of boys who had been classified by the system as learning disabled.
Many educators, doctors and parents tout Ritalin as a wonder drug. Child won't pay attention? Is he poorly organized? Does he fidget or have difficulty playing quietly? Why, then give him Ritalin. This little pill's technical name is methylphenidate, and it's actually an amphetamine. Chemically similar to Benzedrine, otherwise known as "speed," Ritalin acts as a central nervous stimulant for adults, which is why some college students now use it for short-term mood elevation and all-night cramming.
In contrast to its effect on older people, though, Ritalin slows children down, making the "bad" ones more manageable. Of course, doctors don't completely understand why Ritalin affects younger individuals in this manner, but they keep prescribing it by the bushel anyway. (It enables parents and teachers to exert social control, and that's what's important. Isn't it?)
My first Ritalin boy was Larry Horton. Yes, Larry had been quite a pain before being medicated, blurting out inane comments from his seat without raising his hand, never bringing his books to class, rarely following instructions or finishing class assignments. Consequently, I was filled with wonder when he started taking the medication. His lively misbehavior transformed virtually overnight into pleasant docility. He kept his eyes on the chalkboard at all times, and he sat still in his seat.
It took only a few weeks for me to realize that Larry's improved conduct resulted from nothing more than a drugged stupor. He was no longer an impish boy. He was a windup doll, programmed to remember two things: to go from class to class when the bell rang and to take his pill at lunch. Larry's learning was not enhanced. His grades did not improve. That year he failed English for the second time.
Like Larry, 7.5 percent of all school-age children (some starting at an age as early as 6 years) will be prescribed Ritalin at some point in their youth, according to John R. Woodward, M.S.W., director of the Center for Independent Living of Northern Florida.
Of these children, many will suffer physical side effects, which include but are not limited to loss of appetite, failure to grow, insomnia, stomach and head pains, facial tics and dehydration. A small number will experience liver problems over time, and Ritalin "lifers" will be in danger of Parkinson's disease.
Most of the children will develop a dependency for the drug, building an increased tolerance for it and requiring higher dosages. When taken off the medication, they will have withdrawal symptoms similar to those felt by speed freaks, and their behavior will revert to its original form.
The fact of the matter is this: children prescribed Ritalin are in it for the long haul. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that 20 percent of these children will outgrow their be-havioral problems at puberty, but those who have no such luck may be dependent on the medication for the rest of their lives.
Or until they are old enough to decide that they don't want to be medicated anymore.
Why is it that, in this age of zero-tolerance, adults are feeding drugs to their children?
We could blame the Fortune 500 chemical company which produces Ritalin, Ciba-Geigy, for implementing massive marketing campaigns in an effort to brainwash doctors into prescribing this drug.
We could also fault the neurologists and psychiatrists themselves, who use only a short observation and a teacher's or parent's assement to diagnose a child with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), the condition Ritalin treats.
While we're at it, we might point the finger at the educational bureaucracy, teachers and school administrators who, in efforts to resume surface control of their classrooms, often strong-arm difficult children into taking Ritalin.
In the New Jersey district where I last taught, one difficult student was suspended from school indefinitely until he could prove with a doctor's prescription that he was taking the medication.
But, ultimately, it is parents who are packing pills into kids' lunch boxes.
Medical diagnosis or not, parents are responsible for their children's psychological and behavioral development. Although genetically caused in some cases, ADD results primarily from poor brain development, most of which occurs during the first two years of a child's life.
The brain is equipped with hundreds of nerve cells that, throughout this period, grow together and form a complex network of connections which work together to perform cognitive functions.
When spots of these "cell circuits" fail to make their proper connections, the brain experiences consciousness as if it were a fast-moving kaleidoscope rather than a steady plane. Images shift. Unrelated sights and sounds interrupt and distract.
Of the 7.5 percent of our nation's children who are taking Ritalin, NIMH reports that only 3 to 5 percent actually have ADD. In other words, out of 20 children in a classroom, one child's brain circuits will be poorly wired. It's time that we faced the facts. We're not providing our babies with the "brain nourishment" that they need.
Hillary Clinton explains the dilemma in lay terms in her book, It Takes a Village. "The brain is an organ, not a machine, and its hardware' is still being wired at birth, and for a long time afterward. With proper stimulation, brain synapses will form at a rapid pace, reaching adult level by the age of two. The quality of the nutrition, care giving and stimulation the child receives determines not only the eventual number of these synapses but also how they are wired' for both cognitive and emotional intelligence. Synapses that are not used are destroyed."
You don't have to be the First Lady and it doesn't take a village to realize this: babies need to be talked to, touched and held, and not just a few hours a day. When we plop them into highchairs in front of endless videos, or when we dump them into day-care settings where there is only one adult for every six babies, we are depriving them of more than our presence; we're depriving them of a well-developed brain.
Of course, both day-care and television are here to stay, but Ritalin and ADD don't have to be. To prevent ADD and the need for Ritalin, parents forced to find secondary care for their infants should consider cutting down their work hours in order to spend more time each day with their children. (True, this requires sacrifice -- whether it be selling the second car, bypassing that sale on videocams, or turning down that promotion -- but the return is well worth the investment.)
Single parents with newborns might explore alternative day-care options where their babies can receive devoted and responsive care giving, care that perhaps a retired relative or friend could provide.
Finally, parents of children who have already been diagnosed with ADD should consider non-toxic alternatives to medication, such as behavioral man-agement strategies and Pycnogenol, a non-toxic pill which has been used on hyperactive children in Europe for decades and is made from the extract of the French Maritime Pine Tree.
The Feingold Diet, a program which eliminates all food additives, synthetic colors and flavors from a child's dietary intake, has also proven effective for controlling children's behavioral problems.
The best way to rid the country of Ritalin is to rethink, before having children, how we define a successful life. If we need to systematically tranquilize the three-point-two kids that come along with the house, the career, the two cars and the dog, then we have not, in truth, realized the American Dream.
Before moving to Columbia, Nancy Kern taught high school English in Rutherford, NJ. A graduate of Columbia University, she is currently enrolled in the MFA program in creative writing at USC, where she serves as assistant editor of the graduate literary journal, Yemassee.