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ADHD drugs help children make moral choices

Posted on 15/10/2012
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Children living with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) tend to feel that they benefit from medication to treat the condition and do not feel that the medication turns them into ‘robots’, according to a report published today by researchers at King’s College London.

In fact, they report feeling that medication helps them to control their behaviour and make better decisions. The study, led by Dr Ilina Singh from the Department of Social Science, Health & Medicine and the Institute of Psychiatry, and funded by the Wellcome Trust, gives a voice to the children themselves, providing valuable insights into their experiences and the stigma they face.

The ADHD VOICES – Voices on Identity, Childhood, Ethics and Stimulants – study has worked with 151 families in the UK and US to examine ethical and societal issues surrounding ADHD, and in particular the use of treatments such as methylphenidate (Ritalin). 

Dr Singh and her colleagues interviewed children and their families about ADHD, behaviour, medication and identity across four contexts – home, school, doctor’s office and peer group. The findings, announced today, are accompanied by a series of short films by award-winning animators The Brothers McLeod. The report is intended not only to highlight ethical and social issues surrounding ADHD, but also to help families, doctors, teachers and the children themselves to understand from a child’s perspective what it is like to live with ADHD. 

Credit: The Brothers McLeod/ADHD VOICES

Dr Singh said: ‘ADHD is a very emotive subject which inspires passionate debate. Everyone seems to have an opinion about the condition, what causes it, how to deal with children with ADHD, but the voices of these children are rarely listened to.

‘Who better to tell us what ADHD is like and how medication affects them than the children themselves?’

Dr Singh points to the controversies surrounding providing medication to children with ADHD, which some people argue turns the children into ‘robots’. She believes that in many cases and with a correct diagnosis, treating with stimulants is appropriate and beneficial, particularly if complemented by other interventions. The evidence from the children that she interviewed suggests that they see medication as improving their ability to make their own moral choices.

The study also reports that children often did not understand their condition or why they were receiving medication. Many children in the study reported that they had little meaningful contact with their doctors. After the initial evaluation, clinic visits tended to focus on side-effect checks during which children were weighed and measured. Most children were not asked any questions during these visits.

Dr Singh argues that children need to be better informed and able to discuss their condition: ‘Given the ethical concerns that arise from ADHD diagnosis and stimulant drug treatment, it is imperative that children are able to openly discuss the value of diagnosis and different treatments with a trusted professional.’

The report concludes with a series of recommendations for how parents, doctors and teachers can help children cope with and better understand their condition, and begin to tackle the stigma that currently exists around it.

Clare Matterson, Director of Medical Humanities and Engagement at the Wellcome Trust, commented: ‘It is refreshing to hear the voices of children included in the debate about ADHD. It is a very emotive subject and despite the fact that these children are at the centre of this debate, they are too often ignored. This report sends a clear message to doctors, teachers and parents about the importance of talking to children about their condition – and more importantly, listening to what they have to say.’

For further media information please contact Anna Mitchell, PR Manager (Arts and Sciences) on 0207 848 3092 or anna.i.mitchell@kcl.ac.uk

About King's College London

About the Wellcome Trust

The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust’s breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests. 

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