The Rise of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Should we thank the pharmaceutical companies?

Photo Credit: Getty Images / Shakirov.

In 1990, there were about 600,000 children on medication for ADHD.  In 2013, that number rose to 3.5 million. A New York Times article discussed the rise of the diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and the idea that this rise is directly linked to the marketing and sale of ADHD medications. 

About ADHD

ADHD is one of the most common mental health disorders among youth, with symptoms often lasting into adult years.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveals that ADHD is the second most common long-term disorder diagnosed in childhood, after asthma. Symptoms include a difficult time paying attention and maintaining concentration, problems controlling behavior, and in some cases, hyperactivity. It is divided into three subtypes: predominantly hyperactive-impulsive, predominantly inattentive, and combined hyperactive-impulsive and inattentive.

Treatment of ADHD

Treatment for ADHD is generally psychotropic medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of both. Treatment is focused on a reduction of symptoms so that the person with the disorder function better at school and/or work and socially. The most common psychotropic treatment of ADHD include stimulants such as Ritalin (methylphenidate), Concerta (methylphenidate HCl) or Adderall (amphetamine and dextroamphetamine).

Dramatic increase in ADHD

The piece gave an account of Dr. Keith Connors, a Duke University psychologist known for his creation of "The Connors Scale," a widely used test for ADHD, as he addressed a group of experts in ADHD in the fall of 2013 and discussed this tremendous rise. 

When Dr. Connors addressed fellow ADHD experts in the fall of 2013, he noted that the CDC estimated that as many as fifteen percent of high school students were diagnosed with ADHD.

The number of children diagnosed with ADHD has increased more than five times from 1990 to 2013.

He indicated that he did not believe that the rise of ADHD itself is an epidemic, but that the increasing numbers of this disorder are directly correlated with the growing number of prescriptions of medications at "unprecedented and unjustifiable levels." 

Dr. Connors discussed how pharmaceutical companies led a twenty year campaign to bring ADHD into greater public awareness, particularly among parents and pediatricians, with the goal of increasing sales. This campaign was successful in that the sales of prescription stimulants to treat ADHD increased by five times from 2002-2013. In 2012, sales of prescription stimulants in the United States alone cashed in at around nine billion dollars.

The Food and Drug Administration's (FDA's) Response to Big Pharma Marketing

Since the year 2000, the FDA has cited the companies marketing all of the major drugs used to treat ADHD of false advertising. In such marketing, images of typical childhood carelessness and laziness have been portrayed as ADHD on television and in popular magazines, offering promises of kids' success in school and obedience at home as a result of its treatment with medication.


According to the New York Times article, physicians are paid by pharmaceutical companies to research such drugs and write publications encouraging other doctors to make the diagnosis of ADHD. It is also noted that many physicians underplay the potency of such medication by likening them to medications as benign as aspirin, when in reality some of these stimulants can be quite addictive and are in the same category as morphine or oxycodone, highly abused substances.

It is interesting that Dr. Connors, the psychologist responsible for a widely used measure to assess for ADHD, has indicated that the pharmaceutical industry is a main reason why ADHD rates are on the rise. While ADHD clearly affects people and there is a place for medication in its treatment, the exponential increase of this disorder parallel with the booming business of stimulant sales certainly warrants raised eyebrows.


American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.). Washington, DC: Author.

Schwarz, A. "The Selling of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder." The New York Times, December 14, 2013.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. (2012). Summary Health Statistics for U.S. Children: National Health Interview Survey, 2011. Vital and Health Statistics, Series 10, Number 254.

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