COLLEGE PARK – A recent survey of Maryland public school children could calm parents who worry the drug Ritalin is being over-prescribed.
About 25,000 Maryland public school students – 3 percent of the total – received Ritalin or some other medication in school last spring to treat attention deficit disorder, according to a government study released Saturday.
“There was always a concern that we were over-prescribing Ritalin, but the data clearly shows that that’s not necessarily so,” said Sidney Seidman, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and chairman of a task force that drafted the report.
Dr. Ken Tellerman, a task force member from the American Academy of Pediatrics, said practice patterns in Maryland are consistent with those throughout the nation. “There is no evidence of over-prescribing,” he said.
Seidman believes research indicates that children who do suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder benefit from using the drug.
ADHD, according to medical literature, is a physical disorder that affects inhibition and self-control. Patients often have difficulty maintaining attention and fighting hyperactive urges. Between 3 and 5 percent of the U.S. population suffers from ADHD, researchers say.
The disorder is often treated with Ritalin, a drug that boosts a patient’s capacity to inhibit and regulate impulsive behaviors. Ritalin has been shown to improve the behavior of 70 to 90 percent of children with ADHD older than 5 years.
The Maryland study, conducted by a task force established by the 1997 General Assembly, surveyed all public schools in the state in April 1998. It was released at this weekend’s Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Conference in College Park.
The study came partly as a response to parents who were worried that Ritalin was being over-prescribed, conference organizers said.
The study showed that fewer students in Maryland use Ritalin than those in school districts in Wisconsin, Virginia and Tennessee – the only comparable state surveys, according to the Maryland State Department of Education.
A nationwide survey in 1995 found that 2.8 percent of school-aged children received Ritalin treatment, and those numbers are rising.
Even so, Barbara D. Ingersoll, a psychologist and the clinical director of Montgomery Child and Family Health Services, said health professionals are under-diagnosing children with ADHD because of the imperfect methods of testing.
“If you’ve got measles, you’ve got measles,” she said, “but diagnosing ADHD is fuzzier.”
Consequently, Ingersoll believes children who don’t quite meet all the requirements for a clinical diagnosis of ADHD go without treatment and continue to suffer.
“We’re overlooking the group that’s mildly impaired but still impaired,” she said.
Gail Dunlap, a special educator and assistant principal in Harford County, believes “it’s more than just medication that will help a child.”
She favors a multi-faceted approach to treating students with ADHD that includes medication, counseling and behavior modification, such as moving a child’s seat in a classroom, tutoring or assigning less homework.
“I’m not for or against medication … but I don’t think medication alone is the answer,” Dunlap said. “It’s not one-size- fits-all. It’s medication plus.””
But Lynn McCawley, a mother from Anne Arundel County, is a strong believer in Ritalin. Her 11-year-old daughter, Claire, has been taking the drug since first grade. “Children’s lives can be turned around with Ritalin,” she said. “If you’ve tried the alternatives and they don’t work, go ahead and try it.” -30-