The self medication debate returns

Our dogmatic attitude of "just say no" has been both counter-productive and ignorant. But that doesn't mean our best-and-brightest need to risk poisoning themselves for what may be just a placebo effect.

John and Robin Blankenhorn, Christmas 2008Ritalin for everyone!

That's the idea behind a provocative essay in which two University of Pennsylvania scientists note how many students and teachers take drugs illegally for concentration and suggest they continue doing so.

Here is my problem. Drugs like Adderall and Ritalin, while useful for those with ADHD, are just speed to everyone else.

I got a demonstration of this when my daughter (left, above) was in second grade. She was diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed Ritalin.

She spent the next day buzzing about her classroom, scribbling furiously and telling everyone "my daddy gave me drugs so I could read, and if you can't read you should have your daddy get you drugs too."

The diagnosis was correct, but some ADHD kids don't respond appropriately to the medication. Tutoring and counseling worked better for my daughter.

I am also certain there is a lot of undiagnosed ADHD running around college campuses.

One close friend confided to me that he had a friend giving him benzedrine all through college. This was in the 1970s. He was an outstanding student, but his bad habits returned afterward.

The punch line of this confession is that my friend had just been diagnosed with severe ADHD, and the benzedrine he thought he was "tripping" on was the proper medication for his condition.

Many gifted people have a variety of what others call mental disorders, ADHD being just one of them. Getting them all the right help could dramatically improve their productivity.

My son, by the way, informed me on this post. (He's to the right, above.) He has ADHD so severe some have called it Asperger's. At times he took medicine, including Adderall and Ritalin, to help him deal with it.

But this story makes him angry. No one should be taking anything without a doctor's advice and prescription, he told me. Through therapy my son has been off medication for some years, and has become an anti-drug crusader.

As a postscript, my own views on this are mixed. There is much we don't know about the mind, especially the gifted mind. Our dogmatic attitude of "just say no" has been both counter-productive and ignorant.

But that doesn't mean our best-and-brightest need to risk poisoning themselves for what may be just a placebo effect, or the equivalent of a strong cup of coffee.

Somewhere between "just say no" and "do your own thing" the scientific method has a role to play. Our minds should be more open to letting that happen.