It’s the same old story, again and again. In a mad rush to maximize revenues and increase profits, Big Pharma creates “disorders” and “diseases,” then quickly develops “treatments,” which are then aggressively marketed to a public desperate for a quick and easy fix. In this case, the “disorder” is ADD/ADHD – and the latest “treatment” is called methylphenidate hci  – currently being marketed by our old friends at Janssen Pharmaceutica, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson as Concerta.

Concerta is similar to Ritalin; both medications are methylphenidates. Methylphenidate was first developed in the mid-1940s by the CIBA Pharmaceutical Company (now Novartis). In the following decade, it was sold under the brand name Ritalin and prescribed for the treatment of chronic fatigue, depression and narcolepsy.  It was also an ingredient in Ritonic, an over-the-counter blend of vitamins, hormones and methylphenidate that was marketed briefly in the early 1960s for “mood enhancement” and vitality. The real turning point however was in 1955, when the FDA approved methylphenidate for the treatment of something the industry decided to call “hyperactivity” among children. Eventually, that dubious diagnosis was given a very scientific-sounding name: “Attention Deficit Hyperactive Syndrome,” or ADHD.

What happened next was not surprising. Over the ensuing decades, the industry managed to convince parents that ADHD was a disorder that could be treated with medication. By the end of the last century, sales of methylphenidate in the US had increased by a whopping 500%. According to a UN Report, patients in the US consume more than 85% of all methylphenidate sold.

Methylphenidate works by increasing dopamine function. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a brain chemical that carries messages from neurons to other parts of the body. It is associated with the brain’s “pleasure centers,” and as such, plays an important role in learning and reinforcing behaviors. It is essentially an “upper,” or amphetamine. It can also affect the cardiovascular system, causing rapid heartbeat, arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), and elevated blood pressure. Heart attacks are not unknown. More frightening, however, the long-term effects of methylphenidate drugs such as Ritalin and Concerta can affect the psyche, causing paranoia, hallucinations, anxiety and depression – even to the point of suicidal thoughts, particularly among children and young teens. That’s something the fine folks at Janssen apparently neglected to mention in its sales literature.

It’s not like those early teen years are difficult enough – particularly for a child who has been labeled as “ADHD” and is being medicated with a prescription that is known to have numerous, potentially dangerous side effects. And seriously – is “ADHD” really a disorder? Or has a profit-driven industry simply managed to convince us all that it is?

Thom Hartmann, a former psychotherapist, wrote a book on this topic several years ago. Titled Attention Deficit Disorder: A Different Perception, the book suggests that rather being a disorder, ADD and ADHD are simply a set of behaviors and tendencies that are often found among hunter-gatherers. For example, what modern, post-industrial society calls a “short attention span” is what hunters and gatherers would consider to be constantly observing the surrounding environment, being alert to any changes. What the modern world calls “impulsive” and “poor planning” may really be an ability to launch into the pursuit of game in an instant. Basically, hunters can take in everything around them, and quickly adapt to changing conditions.

Such skills are valuable in a hunter-gathering society. However, in an agriculturally-based, post industrial society that requires conformity, obedience, and the ability to focus on a single task for extended periods of time, they can be a real liability. Unlike “hunters,” “farmers” must have patience and the ability to focus on a single task for extended periods – and this is what our education system is geared toward.

But for “hunters” having to adapt to a “farmer’s worlds,” is medication the answer? Well, when there are profits to be made, the pharmaceutical industry would surely have us all believe so. However, there are those who believe it is possible to channel ADHD tendencies in ways that can make them useful in modern society. In 1998, Thom and Louise Hartmann helped found the Hunter’s School, which provided educational services for children labeled with ADHD and were struggling in the traditional “farmer’s” educational system. Over the years, the Hunter School helped hundreds of these children to learn how to successfully navigate and function in a farming society.

Sadly, the Hunter School was closed down as of June, 2015.

Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical industry continues to push its products, not really giving a tinker’s damn as to whether or not its poisons are helping or hurting these children. If drugs help – that’s great. And if they wind up causing injury and that results in a few lawsuits…well, that’s just the cost of doing business, isn’t it?



K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.