Study Shows Ritalin Use Doubles in Children of Divorce: But the Question Remains ‘Why?’

Should Ritalin be prescribed as part of a child therapy program for children of divorce? So it would seem from a study reported in the Canadian Medical Association journal, where 6% of children of divorce were prescribed Ritalin, in comparison with a 3% norm. This article explores this controversial issue. 

When a new study comes out showing that Ritalin use doubles in children of divorce, it is easy to assume the very public perception that divorce is always bad for kids. But is it really that simple?

Below, Professor Lisa Strohschein asks the following question: ‘Is it possible that divorce acts as a stressful life event that creates adjustment problems for children, which might increase acting out behavior, leading to a prescription for Ritalin?’

Or as this blogger puts it so well:

People often use psychiatric diagnoses as if they’re explanations when really they’re nothing more than descriptions. The idea is that science will ‘fill in the gaps’ and explain how these differences occur.

The trouble is, the behaviour described by an ADHD diagnosis could occur because of genetic influences on brain development, because divorce is causing emotional distress, because the child is being bullied, or for any number of other reasons.

Ritalin is likely to help regardless of what is causing the child to be disturbed, because it helps the child focus by boosting attention.

The question is, should children be prescribed drugs because they are distressed by a divorce? There’s no definite answer in every case as each child and each situation is different.

But perhaps we should be concerned that children are likely being prescribed psychiatric drugs as a ‘quick fix’ for emotional distress and behaviour problems when research shows that parent training programmes are safe and effective.

Ritalin use doubles after divorce, study finds

By Scott Anderson Tue Jun 5, 9:47 AM ET

TORONTO (Reuters) – Children from broken marriages are twice as likely to be prescribed attention-deficit drugs as children whose parents stay together, a Canadian researcher said on Monday, and she said the reasons should be investigated.More than 6 percent of 633 children from divorced families were prescribed Ritalin, compared with 3.3 percent of children whose parents stayed together, University of Alberta professor Lisa Strohschein reported in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

The study of more than 4,700 children started in 1994, while all the families were intact, Strohschein said. They followed the children’s progress to see what happened to their families and to see what drugs were prescribed.

“It shows clearly that divorce is a risk factor for kids to be prescribed Ritalin,” Strohschein said.

Other studies have shown that children of single parents are more likely to get prescribed drugs such as Ritalin. But is the problem caused by being born to a never-married mother, or some other factor?

“So the question was, ‘is it possible that divorce acts a stressful life event that creates adjustment problems for children, which might increase acting out behavior, leading to a prescription for Ritalin?”‘ Strohschein said in a statement.

“On the other hand, there is also the very public perception that divorce is always bad for kids and so when children of divorce come to the attention of the health-care system — possibly because parents anticipate their child must be going through adjustment problems — doctors may be more likely to diagnose a problem and prescribe Ritalin.”

Ritalin, known generically as methylphenidate, is a psychostimulant drug most commonly prescribed for the treatment of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in children.

There is a big debate in much of the developed world over whether it may be over-prescribed — given to children who do not really need it. In March, a University of California, Berkeley study found that the use of drugs to treat ADHD has more than tripled worldwide since 1993.

Strohschein said it is possible that some mental health problems pre-date the divorce, so “it is possible that these kids had these problems before, but are only being identified afterward.”

Her study was not designed to find out why the children were prescribed the drug.

“I might be finished with the survey, but I am not necessarily finished with the question,” she said in a telephone interview.

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