LOS ALTOS, CA, July 22, 2013 – According to recently released data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost one in five high school age boys and 11 percent of all children in the U.S. have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Poor children are diagnosed at a rate roughly one-third higher than the rest of the population and nearly six-and-a-half million of those between the ages 4 and 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD at some point in their lives – a 41 percent increase over the last ten years.
Although the vast majority of these kids are being given drugs to treat their condition, there are people like Dr. Sanford Newmark who are preaching and practicing a largely if not exclusively drug-free alternative that has proven to be just as effective as medication, without the potential risk.
For Newmark, author of ADHD Without Drugs: A Guide to the Natural Care of Children with ADHD and head of the pediatric integrative neurodevelopmental program at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine in San Francisco, there are a number of possible reasons for such a dramatic rise in ADHD cases.
Either we’re getting better at diagnosing those who were once thought of as merely “acting out;” the diagnostic criteria has widened to include both younger and older children; misdiagnosis of symptoms that mimic ADHD or a rush to diagnose on the part of doctors spending as little as 15 minutes assessing the child’s condition; the possibility of there simply being proportionally more children with ADHD than there were before; or some combination of them all.
Whatever the reason or reasons might be, the more important question is: Where do we go from here?
“I think we need to watch the [potential for] diagnostic creep,” said Newmark during an interview at his office, referring to the recently updated Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a document that, by most accounts, makes it easier for more children to be diagnosed with ADHD.
“I don’t like that,” he said.
What Newmark does like is an approach to treating ADHD that first considers the child’s nutrition, the kind of parenting they are getting, possible school interventions, and various complementary therapies like neurofeedback, acupuncture, and meditation. He is even open to the idea of prayer – something he considers “a powerful, mind-body tool” – if that is what the patient and parent prefer.
He also mentioned how a doctor’s frame of mind might impact the treatment process.
“I think physicians tend to focus on sets of symptoms,” said Newmark. “You see a child and ask, ‘Is he hyperactive? Is he having trouble getting his homework done?’ If you focus only on that and forget that this child is a tremendously likeable, compassionate human being, who may be a terrific artist or a terrific athlete, and you only see that negative part of the child, then you’re not going to give them and their parents an adequate basis on which to treat them.
“One of the most effective treatments for ADHD kids is positivity, focusing on what they do well, because so much of the time people are telling them what they do wrong.”
Asked whether he finds it difficult walking into his first meeting with a child with a completely clean mental slate, Newmark said, “It’s not difficult at all for me to think that progress will be made, because I see huge progress in a lot of these kids.”
He also encourages the parents he works with to take an equally positive approach.
“Part of what I do is really try and get the parents to focus on the good things their kids do,” he said.
According to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, a parent’s expectations can have a significant influence over an ADHD patient’s behavior, even when they assume that their child is receiving medication.
“The act of administering medication, or thinking a child has received medication, may induce positive expectancies in parents and teachers about the effects of that medication, which may, in turn, influence how parents and teachers evaluate and behave toward children with ADHD,” writes the study’s lead author, Dr. Daniel Waschbush. “We speculate that the perception that a child is receiving ADHD medication may bring about a shift in attitude in a teacher or caregiver. They may have a more positive view of the child, which could create a better relationship. They may praise the child more, which may induce better behavior.”
Despite the alarming increase in children diagnosed with ADHD, it is studies like this – as well the work of people like Dr. Newmark – that point to a safe and effective path forward. Whether this involves increased exercise and a better diet for the child, a keener understanding on the doctor’s and parents’ part of the impact of their attitudes and expectations, or even prayer, it’s clear that drugs aren’t the only effective option.
Perhaps an awareness of this fact alone will help turn the statistical tide in a more positive direction.
Eric Nelson’s columns on the link between consciousness and health appear regularly in a number of local, regional, and national online publications. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California.