Five years ago, Alan Schwarz was looking for a new public health issue to sink his teeth into. The New York Times investigative reporter had recently wrapped up his acclaimed series on concussions in sports, which included more than 100 articles and made him a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. He’d heard that students at affluent Westchester County high schools—similar to his own alma mater, Scarsdale High—were snorting the drug Adderall before taking the SATs, to help them achieve laser focus and the high scores they were under increasing pressure to bring home.
Mr. Schwarz was intrigued, saying he was “horrified” that high school students were resorting to such extreme measures to achieve academic success and gain entrance into top-tier colleges. And that they were using an amphetamine that is regularly prescribed to kids diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.
“I thought, what are we doing to our kids to make them feel they had to, in some ways, do cocaine to exceed our expectations?” he said.
By June 2012, Mr. Schwarz had written his first article on the topic, his first journalistic foray into the “ADHD industrial complex,” as he called it. Recently, he published a book, “ADHD Nation: Children, Doctors, Big Pharma, and the Making of an American Epidemic.”
Mr. Schwarz will make a stop at the Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton Village on Monday, April 24, at 5:30 p.m. to talk about the book, which goes behind the scenes to expose the roots and rise of ADHD, which he said is a cultural and medical phenomenon, and highlights what he argues is the systemic over-diagnosis of the disorder, and the often disturbing effects that medications have on patients—especially children.
At the library, he will speak for roughly 40 minutes before taking questions and talking to audience members for another half hour afterward. The lecture will include a multimedia presentation that shows how ADHD was presented to the public, in various forms, over the decades.
Penny Wright, director of adult programs at the library, acknowledged that the library is thrilled to be hosting this talk.
“We followed Mr. Schwarz’s very fine reporting on the link between football and brain injuries for quite some time, and were interested to learn that he had turned his attention to the important topic of ADHD,” she said. “One of our patrons had a connection to him, and he graciously agreed to join us for a talk that we hope will interest our entire community of families, health care professionals and educators.”
“ADHD Nation” specifically targets parents, but not only those whose children have or are suspected of having ADHD. Mr. Schwarz gives a complete and thorough picture of every aspect of the disorder: its history, the medications used to treat it, the side effects of those medications—including their potential for addiction and abuse—the methods for ADHD diagnosis, and the role of doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and the media in bringing the country to a place where now 15 percent of children are diagnosed with the disorder.
Mr. Schwarz is quick to point out that his book is not meant to be an indictment of the disorder itself—rather, he attempts to achieve what every good journalist does; namely, to educate the public to make informed decisions.
“I don’t deny that ADHD exists, or [argue] that the medications are the devil’s work,” he said, pointing out that, as a spectrum disorder, and one for which there is no definitive test, ADHD is and always will be difficult to diagnose. “I see the difficulties of dealing with it, and [the book] is mostly the background of how we got here.”
Mr. Schwarz’s book reports the unscrupulous tactics of the pharmaceutical companies that make millions off their ADHD drugs—devious marketing techniques, funding of medical studies, the downplaying and even denial of serious side effects—and communicates the devastating consequences that misdiagnoses can have by sharing personal accounts from children and their families.
The stories of three individuals and the role ADHD played in their lives constitute the heart of the book. Jamison Monroe and Kristin Parber are examples of how the ADHD system often fails, and the devastating consequences it can have when it does. Both Mr. Monroe and Ms. Parber were victims of a mishandled diagnosis, and ended up addicted to ADHD medications and made their way through substance abuse programs before getting their lives back on track.
Mr. Schwarz also tells the story of Dr. Keith Conners, considered the “father of ADHD,” who watched as the disorder he was largely responsible for bringing to the public’s attention ballooned out of control, and ultimately regretted his role in it.
Mr. Schwarz has been touring the country giving lectures, and said that the response has been overwhelmingly positive. He acknowledged, however, that there is resistance to the information he’s put out there with the book, pointing out that there are many people are “invested either emotionally or financially in that status quo.”
He admitted that he doesn’t hold out much hope that his book will bring about any kind of major change in the way ADHD is diagnosed and treated in this country. “The medical establishment has shown no desire for self-examination,” he said.
Instead, his motivation for writing the book was simple.
“As a journalist, when you see the brazen mishandling of a health issue, particularly one that involves children’s brains, your job is to learn more and try to disseminate better information,” he said. “I’m not telling anyone what to do. I never told anyone, ‘Don’t play football,’ or that ADHD doesn’t exist. I’m just saying that the information that’s out there has serious problems, and here’s some other things that I want to give you to consider. What you do with it is your business.
“Some people mistake me for a crusader,” he added, “but I’m not. I’m an educator—and I think that’s the mantra of good journalism.”
Mr. Schwarz’s talk at Rogers Memorial Library at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, April 24, is free; reservations are not required but can be made by calling 631-283-0774, extension 523. For more information on Alan Schwarz and “ADHD Nation,” visit alanschwarz.net.