Medicating Ourselves To Death

I’m going to start this post by saying that it is really just a case of out-loud thinking. I don’t really know where this leads… I just know I’m thinking about it a lot lately, and I’m hoping that by writing, I make some sense of my thoughts.

I struggle a lot with issues of drug use among American teens– I’ve written about this before when I wrote When I Learned to Hate Drugs — and I worry about it both with the illegal drug use – with 6.5% of high school seniors smoking marijuana on a daily basis according to the NIH – and with the legal drug use where we see more and more kids getting medicated for things like ADHD. As Ken Robinson has noted, it is a bigger issue the further east you go in American, and in my home state of Pennsylvania, 5.6% of all kids between ages four and seventeen are being medicated for ADD / ADHD. And scarily, there’s a huge crossover of kids who fall into both categories, as approximately 30% of people with ADHD have a history of substance abuse.

And I can say, anecdotally, that I have seen multiple kids getting prescribed ADHD drugs without ever being asked if they are using any illegal drugs. Worse, I also know kids who have been prescribed ADHD drugs when their doctors have known they are also using recreational drugs.

And yet, a half-hour search of the internet could not find any really definitive research on what happens to teenage brains when a drug like Ritalin is used in conjunction with marijuana. There were, however, a lot of sites where teens were asking questions about what happens when these drugs are mixed. And there were a fair number of doctor sites that suggested that the symptoms of marijuana use could be mistaken for some of the symptoms of ADD.

So as we have created an adolescence for so many children that is really nothing more than a holding pattern for adulthood — where we tell them that “school is good for you some day,” rather than daring them to be engaged now, empowered now, caring now, where they are bombarded outside of school with an ever more sophisticated marketing industry that preaches instant gratification for material desires — and then we wonder why kids can’t focus or won’t focus and choose to self-medicate or end up getting medicated.

This isn’t to say that there are not kids with real attention issues that profoundly impact their lives in negative ways — there most certainly are. But I worry that there are also many students who are currently being prescribed drugs who have something more resembling situational ADHD, caused by any number of circumstances from really boring and unconnected schoolwork to marijuana use to poor eating habits.

I don’t know that we know the long-term consequences to the behaviors around drug use that are both being explicitly endorsed (major increases in the number of children in American being prescribed drugs for ADHD) and implicitly tolerated (the passive acceptance of teenage drug use which we see in so many families and so many communities.) And I certainly don’t think we know what happens, long-term, to the kids who overlap in both camps.

I want to see us combat the illegal drug use with care. Both the way we care for kids, and by daring more and more kids to care about the lives they lead now such that the allure of drug use is less powerful than the allure of all there is accomplish in front of us.

I want to see us combat the legal drug use by slowing down a bit. I want families to look at sleep patterns of kids (as I finish this blog entry at 2:36 am.) I want families to be smart about healthy dietary habits. I want kids to learn meditation as a way to quiet the mind, not a pill. And perhaps most of all, I want schools to create more work for kids that is actually worth focusing on, relevant, powerful and driven by the student, not the teacher.

There are probably lots of folks who will tell me that I’m too hyper-sensitive about marijuana use among teens. There are probably lots of folks who will tell me that ADHD medication isn’t being over-prescribed to kids today. And there are probably folks who will tell me that the reason I can’t find any red flags about what happens when kids mix these drugs is because no one has found any red flags yet.


But the cost-benefit analysis just doesn’t seem worth it to me. I worry that we inch closer and closer to some Huxley-like dystopia where we simply take our soma and go blithely about our day, never taking the time to really do the hard work of looking around us and taking more ownership of our society and our world.

I worry.

15 thoughts on “Medicating Ourselves To Death

  1. Chris, my concern for a while now is that we are choosing to drug kids in lieu of changing our system. Nearly 10 years ago I helped design and open an alternative charter school in NH. When families were confronted with the choice of staying in their schools and continuing to receive special education services, or attending our school without such services (whole other blog post there) they chose to attend our school, and left their services and in some cases, medications behind.not surprisingly, they flourished in our alternative, hands-on setting without their medication.

    Like you, I don’t mean to suggest that there are not real attention issues remedied by real medications, but I fear that as a whole, our collective choice has been to medicate a generation of learners to maintain an archaic system, instead of changing the system to meet the changing needs of new generations.

  2. Love the cartoon, John!

    I also wonder about the amount of caffeine some students, especially middle schoolers, consume to stay awake after not getting enough rest. School schedules, which seem to work against kids’ natural body rhythms in many cases, and sleeping with cell phones and checking them when you wake up in the middle of the night (I’m totally guilty of this btw) both mean that I see a lot of students who pretty clearly haven’t gotten enough rest. We are doing some work in our advisory program to have discussions with students and parents about the importance of getting enough rest, but I think schools also have to look at how the schedule and homework load affect sleep as well.

  3. Chris, you’ve nailed a huge problem here–related not just to AD(H)D, but to anxiety, social issues, and all number of areas where kids are getting the message that any/everything that might make them different makes them diseased.

    We have gotten so rigid about our systems, and so overwhelmed by the idea of real change, that we look to diagnosing and “fixing” their problems rather than doing the painstaking work of rethinking their and our needs and rebuilding what education can be.

    One result of this is children and adults sorely disconnected from their own needs and feelings who continue to medicate to avoid them. And I one way to look at a solution, I think, is a focus on self reflection and awareness, starting in school (well, at home, then in school).

    Would love to talk about how this can be integrated into the many roles/mandates of the classroom.

  4. Chris,

    Tangentially related: I heard a radio interview (way back) and the speaker described self-medicating their ADD with coffee. Mind blown.

    It’s a very complicated issue. Thanks for writing this.

  5. I agree, but generally see it slightly differently. The amount of work we give kids in schools increases each year (and sometimes just randomly, by teacher). They are in new environments every few minutes, with new people, and n top of the work are forced to learn – on their own – how to navigate a changing social landscape. Throw in a changing body and fluctuating hormones, and it’s no wonder many teens try to self-medicate, or legally self-medicate with ADHD or anxiety medication. I think a huge part of this issue can be addressed by making more time to teach coping skills and wellness (like sleep and dietary haits, as you mentioned). Small groups and individual counseling could help so many students, but we can’t seem to make the time or find the money.

    • This blog really got my attention. Being an Intervention Specialist I have students that have been diagnosed with ADHD that are very successful without the use of medication. On the other hand, I have students who cannot focus without it. It’s a very touchy subject, but overall I think each situation needs to be handled differently. I do agree that changing some things in the environment can help tremendously and teaching children how to cope with ADHD can be beneficial as well. Part of me thinks they need to learn these important skills necessary to live with ADHD with being medicated their entire life. But, some situations are worse than others and I do think some children need medication to stay focused.

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  8. This is a rather interesting choice of topic to write about; but one that intrigued me from the beginning. I can relate to the above discussed issues as I work hands on in a alternative education system where the majority of our students are using ADHD prescribed medication, marijuana, or both in unison.

    We had a trend in our school this year where students who acted up, or didn’t complete assignments would use the excuse that they, “didn’t take their medication,” or that they, “know I have ADHD but I just haven’t went to get diagnosed yet. I need meds.” I feel this is an epidemic passing through our school systems, especially alternative systems, because medicating our young people is so openly accepted and often encourage. I feel people are to open to using medication as a quick fix issue. Too many neglect the idea of teaching our children vital life lessons and strategies that they can use not only during their school day to get by, but can use years down the line too. Instead, more and more people are opting for medication that can snap a child in line quickly without issue. They want to fix the moment, not mold and prepare for the future. Our young people see this and see using the excuse of not having medication or the proper diagnosis as a quick way out of reprimand. They use a quick fix solution to hide their bad habits, rather then build good ones for the future. Just like us. I had numerous students this year start on medication during the first half of the year and do mediocre to poor in both behavior and academics. These same kids in the second half of the year are off medication and doing average to superb. It could be a variety of things. Maybe there was in fact drug usage in the first half of the school year that had ceased once second semester came around. Maybe there was more support this second half of the year. Perhaps even that student just grew up, matured, and grew out of his previous ways. its not always time for medication. Sometimes we need to be more hands on rather then being so willing to handle issues from the distance.

    In regards to ADHD prescription medication usage and marijuana usage, I saw my fair share of this too. While there is no proof as to what it does to the student’s brain, organs, body, etc., I feel all you need to do is watch a student in class to know what it does to their present physique and way of thinking. When you combine marijuana and an ADHD medication you are mixing an upper and a downer. These are opposites, and they take your mind and stretch it into completely opposite directions. How are you supposed to remember all of the important dates of World War II when you are having trouble even remembering how you got to school? The more we medicate students without doing proper homework on their extracurricular life, the more we enable the misuse of prescription drugs and illegal drugs together. And that makes us just as wrong as the student using the two together.

    • Amanda,
      I completely agree. I often get the response, “I didn’t take my meds today so I can’t do this or do that”. There is nothing more frustrating than having a student tell you that before the day even starts. I agree that we need to teach kids skills of how to live with this and not always turn to medication. I like your statement, “they want to fix the moment, not mold and prepare for the future.”


  9. I believe a lot children are being misdiagnosed and prescribe medication. To be honest I really think it is doing harm to them. They are setting these students up for failure. They are programming these students to be depending on medication. I do understand some students have chemical imbalances and need the medication. Also, I know children are misusing these drugs and mixing them with other drugs. This is dangerous and a concern for parents and teachers, especially in the high school level were most children are in the experimental phase. The question I pose is ” Can we try a holistic approach before dosing up are kids”. Sometimes it may be the foods students ingest.

  10. Mr Chris,

    You are not being oversensitive, parents could be unaware off all these drugs and their symptoms, some parents can be really ignorant about these issues and when they discover any change in their children’s behavior or attitude, they believe its symptoms of teenage or even puberty. I’m a biology teacher that works in an international school in the middle east. I would like to give you the perspective of the same problem in the East. As any other country drug dealers try everything to sell their drugs, not just marijuana, also cocaine is available in any form you want. pills, liquid, powder . Unfortunately, schools are their first target, because they know how friendship is more addictive than drugs and how friends can affect each other. The newest way to spread addiction to drugs out here is the electronic cigarette, this tool that was mainly created to control nicotine dose by smokers in order to cut off smoking, is now terribly used to mix marijuana or even cocaine and use it instead of the regular nicotine. By sharing this cigarette between students soon make them all addicted, and great customers for the dealers. Believe it or not, the health ministry in some of the Arab golf countries forbid alcohol sprays for wounds to be sold to teenage or children below the age of 18, after finding out that theses kids are using them to smell them as addiction, drink them, or even mix them with some other medications to have same effect as any other drug in their body. And since death rates of childrens between 14 and 18 are seriously raising every year. We should be “oversensitive”