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08/06/2014 02:49 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2014

Uncovering the Why Behind the Rise in ADHD Cases

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ADHD seems to be the buzzword of the decade when it comes to children who can't sit still, have a hard time concentrating on one task at a time, or act impulsively. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is certainly no laughing matter -- it can be a stressful situation for kids with the diagnosis, as well as for their parents. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 11 percent of U.S. children between the ages of 4-17 had been diagnosed with ADHD in 2011, compared to about 9.5 percent in 2007. In the mid-2000s, the rate of diagnosis in kids was rising by about 6 percent per year. This begs the question: What on earth is going on?

According to researchers at the University of British Columbia in a 2012 study, children born in December were 39 percent more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD and were 48 percent more likely to be treated for the disorder, compared to classmates with a January birthday (who are almost a full year older). Are we to assume that all of these children need professional or medical help to treat a so-called ADHD diagnosis, or could it be that their behavior is a bit more erratic simply because they're less mature?

Let's keep in mind that everyone seems to have an opinion about the what and the why of ADHD. However, there are some things worth considering when it comes to this widespread diagnosis. There's no question that each child is different, and each situation has its own unique nuances.

I recently listened to CBC's Q, featuring an interview by Jian Ghomeshi with Canadian renowned speaker and author, Dr. Gabor Maté, about the rising rates of ADHD treatment in North America. Dr. Maté had some interesting insights about ADHD, from both a professional and personal perspective -- he was recently diagnosed with the disorder himself, and his three children have also been diagnosed. In the interview, Dr. Maté talked about the way there needs to be more attention on the amount of stress that's present in a child's life, as the brain develops in relation to its environment. According to Dr. Maté, kids are manifesting the impact of the amount of stress that has taken over our everyday lives. The more stressed out our parents are, the higher our chances of developing some sort of developmental issue during childhood.

Essentially, by "fixing" the kids with medication, we're simply treating a symptom, but not the real problem. The real issue is in the child's environment. In fact, a child's inattentiveness or "tuning out" is a survival tactic. Dr. Maté states that the brain has learned to tune out during highly stressful situations to protect itself. If this goes on long enough, the brain can make inattention a default setting.

The way that we're living our lives must have an impact on a child's development. These days, both kids and their parents are addicted to screens. We're never not connected -- we carry our smartphones with us everywhere, often keeping them on at night. Our iPads fit neatly in our laps while we sit on the couch watching TV. Gaming has become a verb and every kid on the block is obsessed with Minecraft. Face-to-face interaction has gone by the wayside, our communication has become limited to 140 characters and we can't seem to be entertained by just one activity (or screen). It's really no wonder that some children have a hard time focusing on one activity and aren't up to par with waiting their turns in line -- our obsession with technology these days has made multi-screen time the norm, and most of their human interaction comes through a phone or a computer. What did we expect to happen?

For those who are unaware, here are some symptoms of ADHD in kids:

  • Inattention -- difficulty focusing on one task, poor listening skills, distractibility, failure to follow instructions, making slopping mistakes.
  • Impulsivity -- often shouts out answers before hearing the entire question, interrupting others, difficulty waiting their turn.
  • Hyperactivity -- fidgeting, noisy, motor-mouth, runs in inappropriate situations, does not stay seated in settings where expected (school).

What's described here sounds an awful lot like nearly every school-aged child I've ever met. How do we decipher regular child-like behavior from a mental disorder? I wonder if that's where the lines start to get blurry and those with short attention spans or who are excitable are being labeled in ways that they shouldn't.

The bigger issue here is in regards to kids being labeled inappropriately and feeling like badly about themselves. These issues can carry on into adulthood. As well, we don't yet know exactly what the long-term effects are of ADHD medications -- especially for those that never really needed it in the first place.

What do you think? Are we over-diagnosing children or is this an issue that's legitimately on the rise?

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