Selling Sickness 2013

adhd grows up

The number of people diagnosed with ADHD continues to skyrocket.  It can’t be explained on the basis of genetics or biology.  Rather it seems this increase in diagnosis is simply the result of Big Pharma working with doctors, scientists, educators, parents, government, celebrities, and the media. That is, it’s the result of marketing. I (K.W.) don’t know about you, but it seems everywhere I turn there’s a new “discovery” about the prevalence or consequences of ADHD.

Late last year, The New York Times took an in-depth look at the industry fueling the huge rise in ADHD prescriptions, exploring how marketing turned a once-obscure disorder into a $9 billion business.  In his investigative article, “The Selling of Attention Deficit Disorder”reporter Alan Schwarz explored the formula that the advertising/marketing industry used to push these conditions and treatments.  It required that both drug makers and doctors insist that ADHD is being under-diagnosed in children, and that if inadequate (medication) treatment persists the condition will result in much bigger problems when affected children become adults.  Thus the industry ensures customers for life.

I know when I was a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s, this ADHD diagnosis didn’t really exist.  Yet, now, my cohort is the exact population being targeted with the industry propaganda both about our children — and ourselves.  With the children’s market booming, the industry is shifting its focus to undiagnosed adult ADHD.  Its messaging implies that adult ADHD can limit professional success, strain relationships (often ending in divorce), and diminish overall well-being.  Insofar as adults far outnumber children, this market represents a huge growth opportunity. In fact, the latest edition of the DSM-V is the first to explicitly recognize adult ADHD.  This will no doubt help fuel the fastest-growing segment of the market — adults who were never diagnosed as children.

Big Pharma uses celebrities like Maroon 5’s Adam Levine to talk about their experience with ADHD and then drives normal people on-line to take a quiz to see if they may have ADHD symptoms.  I took this quick 6 question questionnaire and scored 20 which told me that ADHD may be likely and that I should visit with my healthcare professional who can make the diagnosis.

Here’s my result:


Yes, I have sometimes have trouble concentrating, forgetting things, or being motivated to start or complete projects.  But I find it hard to believe that this means I am at high risk for adult ADHD.   Without any no blood test or other sort of biological marker, I wonder how my doctor would diagnose me with ADHD.  I worry that she might use this kind of quiz.

The selling of sickness is more prevalent than people realize.  The public has become convinced that every life distress should be medically diagnosed and treated. Having difficulty concentrating or having trouble completing projects is hardly a medical condition. We must resist the temptations of the healthcare marketing/advertising industry to oversimplify, overmedicalize and overtreat.

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