Emotional Regulation for Kids With ADHD

Edutopia

Six brain-based strategies to help kids with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder build confidence, engagement, and focus.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 11 percent of children—that’s 6.4 million kids—in the United States ages 4–17 were reported by parents to have a diagnosis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder as of 2011. Dr. Russell Barkley, clinical professor of psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina and an expert on ADHD, says that this disorder is primarily about emotional regulation and self-control and is not just about inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. Emotional regulation, which is foundational to social, emotional, and academic success, is underdeveloped in these young people. Barkley emphasizes that ADHD arises from neurogenetic roots and is not a knowledge or intelligence disorder.

This year, I am working with the Indianapolis Public Schools and co-teaching in a fifth- and sixth-grade classroom. In class, I have students who are significantly challenged in terms of paying attention, focusing, and regulating their emotions. Each day I see how they struggle emotionally, socially, and academically, and observe how they can begin to wither away in deep feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty if they don’t have a sense of purpose and connection. Below are a few brain-aligned strategies that we’re implementing in the district. I have found that these strategies, which focus on the strengths and interests of these struggling students, can have a profoundly positive impact.

1. Whole Class Discussions: It’s very unsettling when students see another student struggle and do not understand why that student is struggling. At the beginning of the year or grading period—or simply when behaviors and learning as a class go awry—we have the opportunity to address the challenges and strengths of various learning and emotional disorders with the entire class. Invisible disabilities are often met with fear and anger from other students because of the unknown or a simple misunderstanding of their classmates’ emotional, social, or academic challenges. Just as some of us need glasses to see clearly or take insulin to regulate blood glucose levels, others need an oxygenated supply of movement, brain intervals, or space and time to regulate after a 10- to 20-minute instructional lesson. Holding class discussions about the neurodiversity of human brains helps all students to understand each other.

2. It Takes a Village: Bringing in adult community members who have experienced ADHD, anxiety, or other attentional challenges is a wonderful way for students to feel connected and hopeful about their future and plans for success. When I invited young adults who have been challenged with these disorders into our classroom, they shared their personal and professional journeys, which deepened the sense of community, understanding, and acceptance of all learning styles and challenges. A motto that needs to be embraced is: “Everyone gets what they need.”

3. I Noticed: Homemade “I Noticed” sheets are great tools for reinforcing all that is going well moment by moment even when you’ve had moments of adversity. Students who struggle with attention and focus need this constant feedback throughout the day to help them track how they are learning and to know that the teacher is present and aware. All students love homemade sheets—they show that the teacher has taken time and effort to help them feel and be successful.

4. Brain Stories: Children and adolescents who struggle to pay attention sometimes don’t feel accepted or successful in school. Yet, beneath many of the challenges of neurodiversity are facets of your students that are not always shared during content instruction—personal stories that highlight these students’ strengths, gifts, and feelings.

Psychiatrist Dan Seigel says, “What is shareable is bearable, and what you can name, you can tame.” A great way to recognize these students is to have them share “brain stories”—personal experiences, strengths, interests, and feelings. You can further engage them by giving them a choice as to whether they want to create their stories in narrative or picture form. Younger students may begin to showcase their lives through pictures and artwork; older students may want to add sections, revise current categories, and change the format as they see their life journeys unfolding. Brain stories can be created throughout the semester or academic year and posted on a weekly or monthly timeline.

Much like an Individualized Education Program, the brain story will accompany each student throughout his or her school years, though you can invite students to modify, rework, and share their stories over time.

5. Homework for the Teacher: One of the best brain-aligned strategies I have implemented with all ages is doing homework for them on the weekend. Each Friday, I select a couple of students who are in need of affirmation and who have struggled to meet a few of their goals. I usually know their interests and likes, and so I ask, “I have some time this weekend and would love to learn for you! What would you like for me to research this weekend? What would you like to know more about? I will bring my work to you on Monday!” The excitement, the feelings of connection are palpable, and each time, I see more effort from these students than I did the weeks prior to this invitation.

6. Chunking: Chunking or condensing assignments and instructional time with frequent feedback is an excellent way to build on small successes. Students diagnosed with attention challenges may require a smaller list of tasks to complete within a structured, shorter period of time. As an example, I’m working with a second-grade student diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety who was literally throwing tantrums and disrupting the class several times a day when he began feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, and unsuccessful. We have now chunked his assignments and written those on colored sticky notes. When he arrives in the morning, he has two assignments to complete that are clear and easy to accomplish. When he completes those two assignments, he is given a brain break for a few minutes and then moves on to the next task. We have seen amazing improvement with his ability to pay attention and to remain focused and inspired with these shortened assignments and tasks. We will continue to  build and lengthen these assignments over a period of time with the renewal of time spent on something he loves and enjoys.

Brain Intervals

Brain intervals have two purposes. They provide novelty and and increase interest when implemented after a student has worked on an assignment for a period of time. A young person’s attention span is limited, and following a period of direct instruction and independent work, students with ADHD need to step away with a brain interval that is interesting and engaging. Here are some ideas to support brain intervals:

  • Reading a favorite book/comic
  • Drawing or designing art for the classroom or main office
  • Computer time and/or watching motivational videos
  • Playing a brain-aligned video program such as Brain Pop

The Selling of Attention Deficit Disorder

The New York Times

“This is a concoction to justify the giving out of medication at unprecedented and unjustifiable levels,” Keith Conners, a psychologist and early advocate for recognition of A.D.H.D., said of the rising rates of diagnosis of the disorder.Karsten Moran for The New York Times

By 
DECEMBER 14, 2013 

After more than 50 years leading the fight to legitimize attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Keith Conners could be celebrating.

Severely hyperactive and impulsive children, once shunned as bad seeds, are now recognized as having a real neurological problem. Doctors and parents have largely accepted drugs like Adderall and Concerta to temper the traits of classic A.D.H.D., helping youngsters succeed in school and beyond.

But Dr. Conners did not feel triumphant this fall as he addressed a group of fellow A.D.H.D. specialists in Washington. He noted that recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the diagnosis had been made in 15 percent of high school-age children, and that the number of children on medication for the disorder had soared to 3.5 million from 600,000 in 1990. He questioned the rising rates of diagnosis and called them “a national disaster of dangerous proportions.”

“The numbers make it look like an epidemic. Well, it’s not. It’s preposterous,” Dr. Conners, a psychologist and professor emeritus at Duke University, said in a subsequent interview. “This is a concoction to justify the giving out of medication at unprecedented and unjustifiable levels.”

billion

Sales of prescription stimulants have more than quintupled since 2002.

The rise of A.D.H.D. diagnoses and prescriptions for stimulants over the years coincided with a remarkably successful two-decade campaign by pharmaceutical companies to publicize the syndrome and promote the pills to doctors, educators and parents. With the children’s market booming, the industry is now employing similar marketing techniques as it focuses on adult A.D.H.D., which could become even more profitable.

Few dispute that classic A.D.H.D., historically estimated to affect 5 percent of children, is a legitimate disability that impedes success at school, work and personal life. Medication often assuages the severe impulsiveness and inability to concentrate, allowing a person’s underlying drive and intelligence to emerge.

But even some of the field’s longtime advocates say the zeal to find and treat every A.D.H.D. child has led to too many people with scant symptoms receiving the diagnosis and medication. The disorder is now the second most frequent long-term diagnosis made in children, narrowly trailing asthma, according to a New York Times analysis of C.D.C. data.

Behind that growth has been drug company marketing that has stretched the image of classic A.D.H.D. to include relatively normal behavior like carelessness and impatience, and has often overstated the pills’ benefits. Advertising on television and in popular magazines like People and Good Housekeeping has cast common childhood forgetfulness and poor grades as grounds for medication that, among other benefits, can result in “schoolwork that matches his intelligence” and ease family tension.

A 2002 ad for Adderall showed a mother playing with her son and saying, “Thanks for taking out the garbage.”

The Food and Drug Administration has cited every major A.D.H.D. drug — stimulants like Adderall, Concerta, Focalin and Vyvanse, and nonstimulants like Intuniv and Strattera — for false and misleading advertising since 2000, some multiple times.

Sources of information that would seem neutral also delivered messages from the pharmaceutical industry. Doctors paid by drug companies have published research and delivered presentations that encourage physicians to make diagnoses more often that discredit growing concerns about overdiagnosis.

Many doctors have portrayed the medications as benign — “safer than aspirin,” some say — even though they can have significant side effects and are regulated in the same class as morphine and oxycodone because of their potential for abuse and addiction. Patient advocacy groups tried to get the government to loosen regulation of stimulants while having sizable portions of their operating budgets covered by pharmaceutical interests.

VIDEO

How Drug Companies
Sell A.D.H.D.

What makes A.D.H.D. ads so effective? Dr. Aaron Kesselheim, a Harvard professor, analyzes several ads and discusses how many of them play on parents’ common fears about their children.

Poh Si Teng and Alan Schwarz

 

Companies even try to speak to youngsters directly. Shire — the longtime market leader, with several A.D.H.D. medications including Adderall — recently subsidized 50,000 copies of a comic book that tries to demystify the disorder and uses superheroes to tell children, “Medicines may make it easier to pay attention and control your behavior!”

Profits for the A.D.H.D. drug industry have soared. Sales of stimulant medication in 2012 were nearly $9 billion, more than five times the $1.7 billion a decade before, according to the data company IMS Health.

Even Roger Griggs, the pharmaceutical executive who introduced Adderall in 1994, said he strongly opposes marketing stimulants to the general public because of their dangers. He calls them “nuclear bombs,” warranted only under extreme circumstances and when carefully overseen by a physician.

Psychiatric breakdown and suicidal thoughts are the most rare and extreme results of stimulant addiction, but those horror stories are far outnumbered by people who, seeking to study or work longer hours, cannot sleep for days, lose their appetite or hallucinate. More can simply become habituated to the pills and feel they cannot cope without them.

Tom Casola, the Shire vice president who oversees the A.D.H.D. division, said in an interview that the company aims to provide effective treatment for those with the disorder, and that ultimately doctors were responsible for proper evaluations and prescriptions. He added that he understood some of the concerns voiced by the Food and Drug Administration and others about aggressive ads, and said that materials that run afoul of guidelines are replaced.

“Shire — and I think the vast majority of pharmaceutical companies — intend to market in a way that’s responsible and in a way that is compliant with the regulations,” Mr. Casola said. “Again, I like to think we come at it from a higher order. We are dealing with patients’ health.”

A spokesman for Janssen Pharmaceuticals, which makes Concerta, said in an email, “Over the years, we worked with clinicians, parents and advocacy groups to help educate health care practitioners and caregivers about diagnosis and treatment of A.D.H.D., including safe and effective use of medication.”

Now targeting adults, Shire and two patient advocacy groups have recruited celebrities like the Maroon 5 musician Adam Levine for their marketing campaign,“It’s Your A.D.H.D. – Own It.” Online quizzes sponsored by drug companies are designed to encourage people to pursue treatment. A medical education video sponsored by Shire portrays a physician making a diagnosis of the disorder in an adult in a six-minute conversation, after which the doctor recommends medication.

Like most psychiatric conditions, A.D.H.D. has no definitive test, and most experts in the field agree that its symptoms are open to interpretation by patients, parents and doctors. The American Psychiatric Association, which receives significant financing from drug companies, has gradually loosened the official criteria for the disorder to include common childhood behavior like “makes careless mistakes” or “often has difficulty waiting his or her turn.”

The idea that a pill might ease troubles and tension has proved seductive to worried parents, rushed doctors and others.

“Pharma pushed as far as they could, but you can’t just blame the virus,” said Dr. Lawrence Diller, a behavioral pediatrician in Walnut Creek, Calif. “You have to have a susceptible host for the epidemic to take hold. There’s something they know about us that they utilize and exploit.”

Selling to Doctors

Modern marketing of stimulants began with the name Adderall itself. Mr. Griggs bought a small pharmaceutical company that produced a weight-loss pill named Obetrol. Suspecting that it might treat a relatively unappreciated condition then called attention deficit disorder, and found in about 3 to 5 percent of children, he took “A.D.D.” and fiddled with snappy suffixes. He cast a word with the widest net.

All.

For A.D.D.

A.D.D. for All.

Adderall.

“It was meant to be kind of an inclusive thing,” Mr. Griggs recalled.

Roger Griggs, who introduced Adderall in 1994 before ads portraying medication as a way to improve grades and behavior were allowed, said, “There’s no way on God’s green earth we would ever promote” stimulants directly to consumers.Karsten Moran for The New York Times

 

Adderall quickly established itself as a competitor of the field’s most popular drug, Ritalin. Shire, realizing the drug’s potential, bought Mr. Griggs’s company for $186 million and spent millions more to market the pill to doctors. After all, patients can buy only what their physicians buy into.

As is typical among pharmaceutical companies, Shire gathered hundreds of doctors at meetings at which a physician paid by the company explained a new drug’s value.

Such a meeting was held for Shire’s long-acting version of Adderall, Adderall XR, in April 2002, and included a presentation that to many critics, exemplifies how questionable A.D.H.D. messages are delivered.

Dr. William W. Dodson, a psychiatrist from Denver, stood before 70 doctors at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Spa in Pasadena, Calif., and clicked through slides that encouraged them to “educate the patient on the lifelong nature of the disorder and the benefits of lifelong treatment.” But that assertion was not supported by science, as studies then and now have shown that perhaps half of A.D.H.D. children are not impaired as adults, and that little is known about the risks or efficacy of long-term medication use.

The PowerPoint document, obtained by The Times, asserted that stimulants were not “drugs of abuse” because people who overdose “feel nothing” or “feel bad.” Yet these drugs are classified by the government among the most abusable substances in medicine, largely because of their effects on concentration and mood. Overdosing can cause severe heart problems and psychotic behavior.

Slides described side effects of Adderall XR as “generally mild,” despite clinical trials showing notable rates of insomnia, significant appetite suppression and mood swings, as well as rare instances of hallucinations. Those side effects increase significantly among patients who take more pills than prescribed.

Another slide warned that later in life, children with A.D.H.D. faced “job failure or underemployment,” “fatal car wrecks,” “criminal involvement,” “unwanted pregnancy” and venereal diseases, but did not mention that studies had not assessed whether stimulants decreased those risks.

Slides that Dr. William W. Dodson, a psychiatrist, presented during a gathering of 70 doctors in 2002 encouraged lifelong treatment for A.D.H.D. Studies have shown that many children with the disorder are not impaired as adults.

 

Dr. Conners of Duke, in the audience that day, said the message was typical for such gatherings sponsored by pharmaceutical companies: Their drugs were harmless, and any traces of A.D.H.D. symptoms (which can be caused by a number of issues, including lack of sleep and family discord) should be treated with stimulant medication.

In an interview last month, Dr. Dodson said he makes a new diagnosis in about 300 patients a year and, because he disagrees with studies showing that many A.D.H.D. children are not impaired as adults, always recommends their taking stimulants for the rest of their lives.

He said that concern about abuse and side effects is “incredibly overblown,” and that his longtime work for drug companies does not influence his opinions. He said he received about $2,000 for the 2002 talk for Shire. He earned $45,500 in speaking fees from pharmaceutical companies in 2010 to 2011, according to ProPublica, which tracks such payments.

“If people want help, my job is to make sure they get it,” Dr. Dodson said. Regarding people concerned about prescribing physicians being paid by drug companies, he added: “They like a good conspiracy theory. I don’t let it slow me down.”

Many of the scientific studies cited by drug company speakers involved Dr. Joseph Biederman, a prominent child psychiatrist at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital. In 2008, a Senate investigation revealed that Dr. Biederman’s research on many psychiatric conditions had been substantially financed by drug companies, including Shire. Those companies also paid him $1.6 million in speaking and consulting fees. He has denied that the payments influenced his research.

Dr. Conners called Dr. Biederman “unequivocally the most published psychopharmacology maven for A.D.H.D.,” one who is well known for embracing stimulants and dismissing detractors. Findings from Dr. Biederman’s dozens of studies on the disorder and specific brands of stimulants have filled the posters and pamphlets of pharmaceutical companies that financed the work.

Those findings typically delivered three messages: The disorder was underdiagnosed; stimulants were effective and safe; and unmedicated A.D.H.D. led to significant risks for academic failure, drug dependence, car accidents and brushes with the law.

Dr. Biederman was frequently quoted about the benefits of stimulants in interviews and company news releases. In 2006, for example, he told Reuters Health, “If a child is brilliant but is doing just O.K. in school, that child may need treatment, which would result in their performing brilliantly at school.”

This year, Dr. Biederman told the medical newsletter Medscape regarding medication for those with A.D.H.D., “Don’t leave home without it.”

Dr. Biederman did not respond to requests for an interview.

Most of Dr. Biederman’s critics said that they believed his primary motivation was always to help children with legitimate A.D.H.D. and that risks of untreated A.D.H.D. can be significant. What concerned them was how Dr. Biederman’s high-profile and unwavering promotion of stimulants armed drug companies with the published science needed to create powerful advertisements — many of which cast medications as benign solutions to childhood behavior falling far short of legitimate A.D.H.D.

“He gave them credibility,” said Richard M. Scheffler, a professor of health economics and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, who has written extensively on stimulants. “He didn’t have a balance. He became totally convinced that it’s a good thing and can be more widely used.”

Building a Message

Drug companies used the research of Dr. Biederman and others to create compelling messages for doctors. “Adderall XR Improves Academic Performance,” an ad in a psychiatry journal declared in 2003, leveraging two Biederman studies financed by Shire. A Concerta ad barely mentioned A.D.H.D., but said the medication would “allow your patients to experience life’s successes every day.”

Some studies had shown that stimulant medication helped some elementary school children with carefully evaluated A.D.H.D. to improve scores in reading and math tests, primarily by helping them concentrate. The concern, some doctors said, is that long-term, wider academic benefits have not been proved — and that ads suggesting they have can tempt doctors, perhaps subconsciously, to prescribe drugs with risks to healthy children merely to improve their grades or self-esteem.

Advertising Disorder

Drug companies have shifted marketing for A.D.H.D. medication through the years. Most recently, problems like divorce and auto accidents have been used to appeal to adults. Ads in the 1990s advertised improved grades at school as a central benefit. Early ads focused on depression and “the problem child.”

Source: Various medical journals and consumer magazines

 

“There are decades of research into how advertising influences doctors’ prescribing practices,” said Dr. Aaron Kesselheim of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who specializes in pharmaceutical ethics. “Even though they’ll tell you that they’re giving patients unbiased, evidence-based information, in fact they’re more likely to tell you what the drug company told them, whether it’s the benefits of the drugs or the risks of those drugs.”

Drug company advertising also meant good business for medical journals – the same journals that published papers supporting the use of the drugs. The most prominent publication in the field, The Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, went from no ads for A.D.H.D. medications from 1990 to 1993 to about 100 pages per year a decade later. Almost every full-page color ad was for an A.D.H.D. drug.

As is legal and common in pharmaceutical marketing, stimulants’ possible side effects like insomnia, irritability and psychotic episodes were printed in small type and dominated by other messages. One Adderall XR brochure included the recording of a man’s voice reassuring doctors: “Amphetamines have been used medically for nearly 70 years. That’s a legacy of safety you can count on.” He did not mention any side effects.

Drug companies used sales representatives to promote the drugs in person. Brian Lutz, a Shire salesman for Adderall XR from 2004 to 2009, said he met with 75 psychiatrists in his Oakland, Calif., territory at least every two weeks — about 30 to 40 times apiece annually — to show them posters and pamphlets that highlighted the medicine’s benefits for grades and behavior.

If a psychiatrist asked about issues like side effects or abuse, Mr. Lutz said, they were played down. He said he was told to acknowledge risks matter-of-factly for legal reasons, but to refer only to the small print in the package insert or offer Shire’s phone number for more information.

“It was never like, ‘This is a serious side effect, you need to watch out for it,’ ” Mr. Lutz recalled. “You wanted to give them more information because we’re talking about kids here, you know? But it was all very positive.”

A Shire spokeswoman said the company would not comment on any specific employee and added, “Shire sales representatives are trained to deliver fair and balanced presentations that include information regarding the safety of our products.”

Mr. Lutz, now pursuing a master’s degree and hoping to work in mental health, recalled his Shire work with ambivalence. He never lied or was told to lie, he said. He said he still would recommend Adderall XR and similar stimulants for A.D.H.D. children and adults.

What he regrets, he said, “is how we sold these pills like they were cars, when we knew they weren’t just cars.”

Selling to Parents

In September 2005, over a cover that heralded Kirstie Alley’s waistline and Matt Damon’s engagement, subscribers to People magazine saw a wraparound advertisement for Adderall XR. A mother hugged her smiling child holding a sheet of paper with a “B+” written on it.

“Finally!” she said. “Schoolwork that matches his intelligence.”

When federal guidelines were loosened in the late 1990s to allow the marketing of controlled substances like stimulants directly to the public, pharmaceutical companies began targeting perhaps the most impressionable consumers of all: parents, specifically mothers.

A magazine ad for Concerta had a grateful mother saying, “Better test scores at school, more chores done at home, an independence I try to encourage, a smile I can always count on.” A 2009 ad for Intuniv, Shire’s nonstimulant treatment for A.D.H.D., showed a child in a monster suit taking off his hairy mask to reveal his adorable smiling self. “There’s a great kid in there,” the text read.

“There’s no way in God’s green earth we would ever promote” a controlled substance like Adderall directly to consumers, Mr. Griggs said as he was shown several advertisements. “You’re talking about a product that’s having a major impact on brain chemistry. Parents are very susceptible to this type of stuff.”

The Food and Drug Administration has repeatedly instructed drug companies to withdraw such ads for being false and misleading, or exaggerating the effects of the medication. Many studies, often sponsored by pharmaceutical companies, have determined that untreated A.D.H.D. was associated with later-life problems. But no science determined that stimulant treatment has the overarching benefits suggested in those ads, the F.D.A. has pointed out in numerous warning letters to manufacturers since 2000.

Shire agreed last February to pay $57.5 million in fines to resolve allegations of improper sales and advertising of several drugs, including Vyvanse, Adderall XR and Daytrana, a patch that delivers stimulant medication through the skin. Mr. Casola of Shire declined to comment on the settlement because it was not fully resolved.

He added that the company’s current promotional materials emphasize how its medications provide “symptom control” rather than turn monsters into children who take out the garbage. He pointed to a Shire brochure and web page that more candidly than ever discuss side effects and the dangers of sharing medication with others.

However, many critics said that the most questionable advertising helped build a market that is now virtually self-sustaining. Drug companies also communicated with parents through sources who appeared independent, from support groups to teachers.

The primary A.D.H.D. patient advocacy group, Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or Chadd, was founded in 1987 to gain greater respect for the condition and its treatment with Ritalin, the primary drug available at the time. Start-up funding was provided by Ciba-Geigy Pharmaceuticals, Ritalin’s primary manufacturer. Further drug company support helped create public service announcements and pamphlets, some of which tried to dispel concerns about Ritalin; one Chadd “fact sheet” conflicted with 60 years of science in claiming, “Psychostimulant drugs are not addictive.”

The program from the 2000 annual convention of the patient advocacy group Chadd thanked its 11 primary sponsors, all drug companies.

 

A 1995 documentary on PBS detailed how Chadd did not disclose its relationship with drug companies to either the Drug Enforcement Administration, which it was then lobbying to ease government regulation of stimulants, or the Department of Education, with which it collaborated on an A.D.H.D. educational video.

Chadd subsequently became more open in disclosing its backers. The program for its 2000 annual convention, for example, thanked by name its 11 primary sponsors, all drug companies. According to Chadd records, Shire paid the group a total of $3 million from 2006 to 2009 to have Chadd’s bimonthly magazine, Attention, distributed to doctors’ offices nationwide.

Chadd records show that the group has historically received about $1 million a year, one-third of its annual revenue, from pharmaceutical company grants and advertising. Regarding his company’s support, Mr. Casola said, “I think it is fair to call it a marketing expense, but it’s an arm’s-length relationship.”

“We don’t control what they do,” he said. “We do support them. We do support broadly what they are trying to do in the marketplace — in society maybe is a better way to say it.”

Advocates Answer

The chief executive of Chadd, Ruth Hughes, said in an interview that most disease-awareness groups receive similar pharmaceutical support. She said drug companies did not influence the group’s positions and activities, and noted that Chadd receives about $800,000 a year from the C.D.C. as well.

“One pharma company wanted to get Chadd volunteers to work at their booth to sort of get peer counseling, and we said no, won’t do that, not going there,” Dr. Hughes said, adding, “It would be seen as an endorsement.”

A.D.H.D. patient advocates often say that many parents resist having their child evaluated because of the stigma of mental illness and the perceived risks of medication. To combat this, groups have published lists of “Famous People With A.D.H.D.” to reassure parents of the good company their children could join with a diagnosis. One, in circulation since the mid-1990s and now posted on thepsychcentral.com information portal beside two ads for Strattera, includes Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln, Galileo and Socrates.

The idea of unleashing children’s potential is attractive to teachers and school administrators, who can be lured by A.D.H.D. drugs’ ability to subdue some of their most rambunctious and underachieving students. Some have provided parents with pamphlets to explain the disorder and the promise of stimulants.

Susan Parry, with her son, Andy, 30. When Andy was a boy, Mrs. Parry felt pressured to put him on stimulants.Rick Scibelli Jr. for The New York Times

 

Susan Parry, who raised three boys in a top public school system on Mercer Island, outside Seattle, in the 1990s, said teachers pushed her into having her feisty son Andy evaluated for A.D.H.D. She said one teacher told her that her own twins were thriving on Ritalin.

Mrs. Parry still has the pamphlet given to her by the school psychologist, which states: “Parents should be aware that these medicines do not ‘drug’ or ‘alter’ the brain of the child. They make the child ‘normal.’ ” She and her husband, Michael, put Andy on Ritalin. The Parrys later noticed that on the back of the pamphlet, in small type, was the logo of Ciba-Geigy. A school official told them in a letter, which they provided to The Times, that the materials had been given to the district by a Ciba representative.

“They couldn’t advertise to the general public yet,” said Michael Parry, adding that his son never had A.D.H.D. and after three years was taken off Ritalin because of sleep problems and heart palpitations. “But somebody came up with this idea, which was genius. I definitely felt seduced and enticed. I’d say baited.”

Although proper A.D.H.D. diagnoses and medication have helped millions of children lead more productive lives, concerns remain that questionable diagnoses carry unappreciated costs.

“They were telling me, ‘Honey, there’s something wrong with your brain and this little pill’s going to fix everything,’ ” said Micaela Kimball, who received the diagnosis in 1997 as a high school freshman in Ithaca, N.Y., and is now a freelance writer in Boston. “It changed my whole self-image, and it took me years to get out from under that.”

Today, 1 in 7 children receives a diagnosis of the disorder by the age of 18. As these teenagers graduate into adulthood, drug companies are looking to keep their business.

The New Frontier: Adults

The studio audience roared with excitement two years ago as Ty Pennington, host of “The Revolution” on ABC, demonstrated how having adult A.D.H.D. felt to him. He staged two people struggling to play Ping-Pong with several balls at once while reciting the alphabet backward, as a crowd clapped and laughed. Then things got serious.

The television host Ty Pennington has been featured in advertisements in which adult A.D.H.D. has been marketed by pharmaceutical companies.Michael Buckner/Getty Images

 

A psychiatrist on the program said that “the prison population is full of people with undiagnosed A.D.H.D.” He told viewers, “Go get this diagnosis” so “you can skyrocket.” He said that stimulant medication was effective and “safer than aspirin.”

No one mentioned that Mr. Pennington had been a paid spokesman for Shire from 2006 to 2008. His Adderall XR video testimonials – the medication “literally changed my life” and “gave me confidence,” he said in a 2008 ad — had drawn an F.D.A. reprimand for overstating Adderall’s effects while omitting all risks.

Mr. Pennington said through a spokeswoman: “I am not a medical expert. I am a television host.”

Many experts agree that the disorder was dismissed for too long as affecting only children. Estimates of the prevalence of adult A.D.H.D. in the United States — derived through research often backed by pharmaceutical companies — have typically ranged from 3 to 5 percent. Given that adults far outnumber children, this suggests that the adult market could be twice as large.

Because many doctors and potential patients did not think adults could have A.D.H.D., drug companies sold the concept of the disorder as much as their medications for it.

“The fastest-growing segment of the market now is the new adults who were never diagnosed,” Angus Russell told Bloomberg TV in 2011 when he was Shire’s chief executive. Nearly 16 million prescriptions for A.D.H.D. medications were written for people ages 20 to 39 in 2012, close to triple the 5.6 million just five years before, according to IMS Health. No data show how many patients those prescriptions represent, but some experts have estimated two million.

Foreseeing the market back in 2004, Shire sponsored a booklet that according to its cover would “help clinicians recognize and diagnose adults with A.D.H.D.” Its author was Dr. Dodson, who had delivered the presentation at the Adderall XR launch two years before. Rather than citing the widely accepted estimate of 3 to 5 percent, the booklet offered a much higher figure.

“About 10 percent of adults have A.D.H.D., which means you’re probably already treating patients with A.D.H.D. even though you don’t know it,” the first paragraph ended. But the two studies cited for that 10 percent figure, from 1995and 1996, involved only children; no credible national study before or since has estimated an adult prevalence as high as 10 percent.

Dr. Dodson said he used the 10 percent figure because, despite several studies estimating adult rates as far lower, “once a child has A.D.H.D., he does for life. It doesn’t go away with age.”

The booklet later quotes a patient of his named Scarlett reassuring doctors: “If you give me a drink or a drug, I’ll abuse it, but not this medication. I don’t consider it a drug. Drugs get abused. Medication helps people have satisfying lives.”

Shire’s 2008 print campaign for adult A.D.H.D. portrayed a gloomy future to prospective patients. One ad showed a happy couple’s wedding photo with the bride airbrushed out and “DIVORCED” stamped on it. “The consequences may be serious,” the ad said, citing a study by Dr. Biederman supported in part by Shire. Although Dr. Biederman’s study showed a higher rate of divorce among adults with the disorder, it did not assess whether stimulant treatment significantly deterred such consequences.

Questionable Quizzes

Adults searching for information on A.D.H.D. encounter websites with short quizzes that can encourage normal people to think they might have it. Many such tests are sponsored by drug companies in ways hidden or easily missed.

“Could you have A.D.H.D.?” beckons one quiz, sponsored by Shire, on the website everydayhealth.com. Six questions ask how often someone has trouble in matters like “getting things in order,” “remembering appointments” or “getting started” on projects.

A user who splits answers evenly between “rarely” and “sometimes” receives the result “A.D.H.D. Possible.” Five answers of “sometimes” and one “often” tell the user, “A.D.H.D. May Be Likely.”

In a nationwide telephone poll conducted by The Times in early December, 1,106 adults took the quiz. Almost half scored in the range that would have told them A.D.H.D. may be possible or likely.

About 570,000 people took the EverydayHealth test after a 2011 advertisementstarring Mr. Levine of Maroon 5 sponsored by Shire, Chadd and another advocacy group, according to the website Medical Marketing & Media. A similar test on the website for Concerta prompted L2ThinkTank.com, which assesses pharmaceutical marketing, to award the campaign its top rating, “Genius.”

John Grohol, a Boston-area psychologist who licensed the test to EverydayHealth, said such screening tools do not make a diagnosis; they merely “give you a little push into looking into” whether you have A.D.H.D. Other doctors countered that, given many studies showing that doctors are strongly influenced by their patients’ image of what ails them, such tests invite too many patients and doctors to see the disorder where it is not.

Online Test Asks Whether You Could Have A.D.H.D., Too

A web page sponsored by the drug maker Shire features this quiz, which encourages adults with what many would consider common behavior to think they might have A.D.H.D. In a Times poll of 1,106 American adults asking the same questions by telephone, nearly half got a result of “A.D.H.D. Possible” or “A.D.H.D. May Be Likely.” Only 5 percent said they had received an A.D.H.D. diagnosis from a medical professional.

Try this six-question quiz to see how you score — then see how you compare with other Americans.

1. How often do you have trouble wrapping up the final details of a project once the challenging parts have been done?
  • Never
  • Rarely
  • Sometimes
  • Often
  • Very Often

 

“I think it is misleading,” said Dr. Tyrone Williams, a psychiatrist in Cambridge, Mass. “I do think that there are some people out there who are really suffering and find out that maybe it’s treatable. But these symptoms can be a bazillion things. Sometimes the answers are so simple and they don’t require prescriptions – like ‘How about eight hours of sleep, Mom, because four hours doesn’t cut it?’ And then all their A.D.H.D. symptoms magically disappear.”

Because studies have shown that A.D.H.D. can run in families, drug companies use the children’s market to grow the adult one. A pamphlet published in 2008 by Janssen, Concerta’s manufacturer — headlined “Like Parent, Like Child?” — claimed that “A.D.H.D. is a highly heritable disorder” despite studies showing that the vast majority of parents of A.D.H.D. children do not qualify for a diagnosis themselves.

A current Shire manual for therapists illustrates the genetic issue with a family tree: three grandparents with the disorder, all six of their children with it, and seven of eight grandchildren, too.

Insurance plans, increasingly reluctant to pay for specialists like psychiatrists, are leaving many A.D.H.D. evaluations to primary-care physicians with little to no training in the disorder. If those doctors choose to learn about the diagnostic process, they can turn to web-based continuing-education courses, programs often subsidized by drug companies.

A recent course titled “Unmasking A.D.H.D. in Adults,” on the website Medscape and sponsored by Shire, featured an instructional video of a primary-care physician listening to a college professor detail his work-related sleep problems. After three minutes he described some attention issues he had as a child, then revealed that his son was recently found to have the disorder and was thriving in college on medication.

Six minutes into their encounter, the doctor said: “If you have A.D.H.D., which I believe you do, family members often respond well to similar medications. Would you consider giving that a try?”

The psychiatrist who oversaw the course, Dr. David Goodman of Johns Hopkins and the Adult Attention Deficit Disorder Center of Maryland, said that he was paid several thousand dollars to oversee the course by Medscape, not Shire directly, and that such income did not influence his decisions with patients. But as he reviewed the video in September, Dr. Goodman reconsidered its message to untrained doctors about how quickly the disorder can be assessed and said, “That was not an acceptable way to evaluate and conclude that the patient has A.D.H.D.”

A Shire spokeswoman declined to comment on the video and the company’s sponsorship of it.

Mr. Casola said Shire remains committed to raising awareness of A.D.H.D. Shire spent $1 million in the first three quarters of 2013, according to company documents, to support A.D.H.D. conferences to educate doctors. One this autumn found J. Russell Ramsay, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school, who also serves as a consultant and speaker for Shire, reading aloud one of his slides to the audience: “A.D.H.D. – It’s Everywhere You Want to Be.”

“We are a commercial organization trying to bring health care treatments to patients,” Mr. Casola said. “I think, on balance, we are helping people.”

A version of this article appears in print on December 15, 2013, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: The Se

Drowned in a Stream of Prescriptions – for ADHD

Drowned in a Stream of Prescriptions

The New York Times

Before his addiction, Richard Fee was a popular college class president and aspiring medical student. “You keep giving Adderall to my son, you’re going to kill him,” said Rick Fee, Richard’s father, to one of his son’s doctors.
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Published: February 2, 2013 500 Comments

VIRGINIA BEACH — Every morning on her way to work, Kathy Fee holds her breath as she drives past the squat brick building that houses Dominion Psychiatric Associates.

It was there that her son, Richard, visited a doctor and received prescriptions for Adderall, an amphetamine-based medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. It was in the parking lot that she insisted to Richard that he did not have A.D.H.D., not as a child and not now as a 24-year-old college graduate, and that he was getting dangerously addicted to the medication. It was inside the building that her husband, Rick, implored Richard’s doctor to stop prescribing him Adderall, warning, “You’re going to kill him.”

It was where, after becoming violently delusional and spending a week in a psychiatric hospital in 2011, Richard met with his doctor and received prescriptions for 90 more days of Adderall. He hanged himself in his bedroom closet two weeks after they expired.

The story of Richard Fee, an athletic, personable college class president and aspiring medical student, highlights widespread failings in the system through which five million Americans take medication for A.D.H.D., doctors and other experts said.

Medications like Adderall can markedly improve the lives of children and others with the disorder. But the tunnel-like focus the medicines provide has led growing numbers of teenagers and young adults to fake symptoms to obtain steady prescriptions for highly addictive medications that carry serious psychological dangers. These efforts are facilitated by a segment of doctors who skip established diagnostic procedures, renew prescriptions reflexively and spend too little time with patients to accurately monitor side effects.

Richard Fee’s experience included it all. Conversations with friends and family members and a review of detailed medical records depict an intelligent and articulate young man lying to doctor after doctor, physicians issuing hasty diagnoses, and psychiatrists continuing to prescribe medication — even increasing dosages — despite evidence of his growing addiction and psychiatric breakdown.

Very few people who misuse stimulants devolve into psychotic or suicidal addicts. But even one of Richard’s own physicians, Dr. Charles Parker, characterized his case as a virtual textbook for ways that A.D.H.D. practices can fail patients, particularly young adults. “We have a significant travesty being done in this country with how the diagnosis is being made and the meds are being administered,” said Dr. Parker, a psychiatrist in Virginia Beach. “I think it’s an abnegation of trust. The public needs to say this is totally unacceptable and walk out.”

Young adults are by far the fastest-growing segment of people taking A.D.H.D medications. Nearly 14 million monthly prescriptions for the condition were written for Americans ages 20 to 39 in 2011, two and a half times the 5.6 million just four years before, according to the data company I.M.S. Health. While this rise is generally attributed to the maturing of adolescents who have A.D.H.D. into young adults — combined with a greater recognition of adult A.D.H.D. in general — many experts caution that savvy college graduates, freed of parental oversight, can legally and easily obtain stimulant prescriptions from obliging doctors.

“Any step along the way, someone could have helped him — they were just handing out drugs,” said Richard’s father. Emphasizing that he had no intention of bringing legal action against any of the doctors involved, Mr. Fee said: “People have to know that kids are out there getting these drugs and getting addicted to them. And doctors are helping them do it.”

“…when he was in elementary school he fidgeted, daydreamed and got A’s. he has been an A-B student until mid college when he became scattered and he wandered while reading He never had to study. Presently without medication, his mind thinks most of the time, he procrastinated, he multitasks not finishing in a timely manner.”

Dr. Waldo M. Ellison

Richard Fee initial evaluation

Feb. 5, 2010

Richard began acting strangely soon after moving back home in late 2009, his parents said. He stayed up for days at a time, went from gregarious to grumpy and back, and scrawled compulsively in notebooks. His father, while trying to add Richard to his health insurance policy, learned that he was taking Vyvanse for A.D.H.D.

Richard explained to him that he had been having trouble concentrating while studying for medical school entrance exams the previous year and that he had seen a doctor and received a diagnosis. His father reacted with surprise. Richard had never shown any A.D.H.D. symptoms his entire life, from nursery school through high school, when he was awarded a full academic scholarship to Greensboro College in North Carolina. Mr. Fee also expressed concerns about the safety of his son’s taking daily amphetamines for a condition he might not have.

“The doctor wouldn’t give me anything that’s bad for me,” Mr. Fee recalled his son saying that day. “I’m not buying it on the street corner.”

Richard’s first experience with A.D.H.D. pills, like so many others’, had come in college. Friends said he was a typical undergraduate user — when he needed to finish a paper or cram for exams, one Adderall capsule would jolt him with focus and purpose for six to eight hours, repeat as necessary.

So many fellow students had prescriptions or stashes to share, friends of Richard recalled in interviews, that guessing where he got his was futile. He was popular enough on campus — he was sophomore class president and played first base on the baseball team — that they doubted he even had to pay the typical $5 or $10 per pill.

“He would just procrastinate, wait till the last minute and then take a pill to study for tests,” said Ryan Sykes, a friend. “It got to the point where he’d say he couldn’t get anything done if he didn’t have the Adderall.”

Various studies have estimated that 8 percent to 35 percent of college students take stimulant pills to enhance school performance. Few students realize that giving or accepting even one Adderall pill from a friend with a prescription is a federal crime. Adderall and its stimulant siblings are classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration as Schedule II drugs, in the same category as cocaine, because of their highly addictive properties.

“It’s incredibly nonchalant,” Chris Hewitt, a friend of Richard, said of students’ attitudes to the drug. “It’s: ‘Anyone have any Adderall? I want to study tonight,’ ” said Mr. Hewitt, now an elementary school teacher in Greensboro.

After graduating with honors in 2008 with a degree in biology, Richard planned to apply to medical schools and stayed in Greensboro to study for the entrance exams. He remembered how Adderall had helped him concentrate so well as an undergraduate, friends said, and he made an appointment at the nearby Triad Psychiatric and Counseling Center.

According to records obtained by Richard’s parents after his death, a nurse practitioner at Triad detailed his unremarkable medical and psychiatric history before recording his complaints about “organization, memory, attention to detail.” She characterized his speech as “clear,” his thought process “goal directed” and his concentration “attentive.”

Richard filled out an 18-question survey on which he rated various symptoms on a 0-to-3 scale. His total score of 29 led the nurse practitioner to make a diagnosis of “A.D.H.D., inattentive-type” — a type of A.D.H.D. without hyperactivity. She recommended Vyvanse, 30 milligrams a day, for three weeks.

Phone and fax requests to Triad officials for comment were not returned.

Some doctors worry that A.D.H.D. questionnaires, designed to assist and standardize the gathering of a patient’s symptoms, are being used as a shortcut to diagnosis. C. Keith Conners, a longtime child psychologist who developed a popular scale similar to the one used with Richard, said in an interview that scales like his “have reinforced this tendency for quick and dirty practice.”

Dr. Conners, an emeritus professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center, emphasized that a detailed life history must be taken and other sources of information — such as a parent, teacher or friend — must be pursued to learn the nuances of a patient’s difficulties and to rule out other maladies before making a proper diagnosis of A.D.H.D. Other doctors interviewed said they would not prescribe medications on a patient’s first visit, specifically to deter the faking of symptoms.

According to his parents, Richard had no psychiatric history, or even suspicion of problems, through college. None of his dozen high school and college acquaintances interviewed for this article said he had ever shown or mentioned behaviors related to A.D.H.D. — certainly not the “losing things” and “difficulty awaiting turn” he reported on the Triad questionnaire — suggesting that he probably faked or at least exaggerated his symptoms to get his diagnosis.

That is neither uncommon nor difficult, said David Berry, a professor and researcher at the University of Kentucky. He is a co-author of a 2010 study that compared two groups of college students — those with diagnoses of A.D.H.D. and others who were asked to fake symptoms — to see whether standard symptom questionnaires could tell them apart. They were indistinguishable.

“With college students,” Dr. Berry said in an interview, “it’s clear that it doesn’t take much information for someone who wants to feign A.D.H.D. to do so.”

Richard Fee filled his prescription for Vyvanse within hours at a local Rite Aid. He returned to see the nurse three weeks later and reported excellent concentration: “reading books — read 10!” her notes indicate. She increased his dose to 50 milligrams a day. Three weeks later, after Richard left a message for her asking for the dose to go up to 60, which is on the high end of normal adult doses, she wrote on his chart, “Okay rewrite.”

Richard filled that prescription later that afternoon. It was his third month’s worth of medication in 43 days.

“The patient is a 23-year-old Caucasian male who presents for refill of vyvanse — recently started on this while in NC b/c of lack of motivation/ loss of drive. Has moved here and wants refill”

Dr. Robert M. Woodard

Notes on Richard Fee

Nov. 11, 2009

Richard scored too low on the MCAT in 2009 to qualify for a top medical school. Although he had started taking Vyvanse for its jolts of focus and purpose, their side effects began to take hold. His sleep patterns increasingly scrambled and his mood darkening, he moved back in with his parents in Virginia Beach and sought a local physician to renew his prescriptions.

A friend recommended a family physician, Dr. Robert M. Woodard. Dr. Woodard heard Richard describe how well Vyvanse was working for his A.D.H.D., made a diagnosis of “other malaise and fatigue” and renewed his prescription for one month. He suggested that Richard thereafter see a trained psychiatrist at Dominion Psychiatric Associates — only a five-minute walk from the Fees’ house.

With eight psychiatrists and almost 20 therapists on staff, Dominion Psychiatric is one of the better-known practices in Virginia Beach, residents said. One of its better-known doctors is Dr. Waldo M. Ellison, a practicing psychiatrist since 1974.

In interviews, some patients and parents of patients of Dr. Ellison’s described him as very quick to identify A.D.H.D. and prescribe medication for it. Sandy Paxson of nearby Norfolk said she took her 15-year-old son to see Dr. Ellison for anxiety in 2008; within a few minutes, Mrs. Paxson recalled, Dr. Ellison said her son had A.D.H.D. and prescribed him Adderall.

“My son said: ‘I love the way this makes me feel. It helps me focus for school, but it’s not getting rid of my anxiety, and that’s what I need,’ ” Mrs. Paxson recalled. “So we went back to Dr. Ellison and told him that it wasn’t working properly, what else could he give us, and he basically told me that I was wrong. He basically told me that I was incorrect.”

Dr. Ellison met with Richard in his office for the first time on Feb. 5, 2010. He took a medical history, heard Richard’s complaints regarding concentration, noted how he was drumming his fingers and made a diagnosis of A.D.H.D. with “moderate symptoms or difficulty functioning.” Dominion Psychiatric records of that visit do not mention the use of any A.D.H.D. symptom questionnaire to identify particular areas of difficulty or strategies for treatment.

As the 47-minute session ended, Dr. Ellison prescribed a common starting dose of Adderall: 30 milligrams daily for 21 days. Eight days later, while Richard still had 13 pills remaining, his prescription was renewed for 30 more days at 50 milligrams.

Through the remainder of 2010, in appointments with Dr. Ellison that usually lasted under five minutes, Richard returned for refills of Adderall. Records indicate that he received only what was consistently coded as “pharmacologic management” — the official term for quick appraisals of medication effects — and none of the more conventional talk-based therapy that experts generally consider an important component of A.D.H.D. treatment.

His Adderall prescriptions were always for the fast-acting variety, rather than the extended-release formula that is less prone to abuse.

“PATIENT DOING WELL WITH THE MEDICATION, IS CALM, FOCUSED AND ON TASK, AND WILL RETURN TO OFFICE IN 3 MONTHS”

Dr. Waldo M. Ellison

Notes on Richard Fee

Dec. 11, 2010

Regardless of what he might have told his doctor, Richard Fee was anything but well or calm during his first year back home, his father said.

Blowing through a month’s worth of Adderall in a few weeks, Richard stayed up all night reading and scribbling in notebooks, occasionally climbing out of his bedroom window and on to the roof to converse with the moon and stars. When the pills ran out, he would sleep for 48 hours straight and not leave his room for 72. He got so hot during the day that he walked around the house with ice packs around his neck — and in frigid weather, he would cool off by jumping into the 52-degree backyard pool.

As Richard lost a series of jobs and tensions in the house ran higher — particularly when talk turned to his Adderall — Rick and Kathy Fee continued to research the side effects of A.D.H.D. medication. They learned that stimulants are exceptionally successful at mollifying the impulsivity and distractibility that characterize classic A.D.H.D., but that they can cause insomnia, increased blood pressure and elevated body temperature. Food and Drug Administration warnings on packaging also note “high potential for abuse,” as well as psychiatric side effects such as aggression, hallucinations and paranoia.

2006 study in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence claimed that about 10 percent of adolescents and young adults who misused A.D.H.D. stimulants became addicted to them. Even proper, doctor-supervised use of the medications can trigger psychotic behavior or suicidal thoughts in about 1 in 400 patients, according to a 2006 study in The American Journal of Psychiatry. So while a vast majority of stimulant users will not experience psychosis — and a doctor may never encounter it in decades of careful practice — the sheer volume of prescriptions leads to thousands of cases every year, experts acknowledged.

When Mrs. Fee noticed Richard putting tape over his computer’s camera, he told her that people were spying on him. (He put tape on his fingers, too, to avoid leaving fingerprints.) He cut himself out of family pictures, talked to the television and became increasingly violent when agitated.

In late December, Mr. Fee drove to Dominion Psychiatric and asked to see Dr. Ellison, who explained that federal privacy laws forbade any discussion of an adult patient, even with the patient’s father. Mr. Fee said he had tried unsuccessfully to detail Richard’s bizarre behavior, assuming that Richard had not shared such details with his doctor.

“I can’t talk to you,” Mr. Fee recalled Dr. Ellison telling him. “I did this one time with another family, sat down and talked with them, and I ended up getting sued. I can’t talk with you unless your son comes with you.”

Mr. Fee said he had turned to leave but distinctly recalls warning Dr. Ellison, “You keep giving Adderall to my son, you’re going to kill him.”

Dr. Ellison declined repeated requests for comment on Richard Fee’s case. His office records, like those of other doctors involved, were obtained by Mr. Fee under Virginia and federal law, which allow the legal representative of a deceased patient to obtain medical records as if he were the patient himself.

As 2011 began, the Fees persuaded Richard to see a psychologist, Scott W. Sautter, whose records note Richard’s delusions, paranoia and “severe and pervasive mental disorder.” Dr. Sautter recommended that Adderall either be stopped or be paired with a sleep aid “if not medically contraindicated.”

Mr. Fee did not trust his son to share this report with Dr. Ellison, so he drove back to Dominion Psychiatric and, he recalled, was told by a receptionist that he could leave the information with her. Mr. Fee said he had demanded to put it in Dr. Ellison’s hands himself and threatened to break down his door in order to do so.

Mr. Fee said that Dr. Ellison had then come out, read the report and, appreciating the gravity of the situation, spoken with him about Richard for 45 minutes. They scheduled an appointment for the entire family.

“meeting with parents — concern with ‘metaphoric’ speaking that appears to be outside the realm of appropriated one to one conversation. Richard says he does it on purpose — to me some of it sounds like pre-psychotic thinking.”

Dr. Waldo M. Ellison

Notes on Richard Fee

Feb. 23, 2011

Dr. Ellison stopped Richard Fee’s prescription — he wrote “no Adderall for now” on his chart and the next day refused Richard’s phone request for more. Instead he prescribed Abilify and Seroquel, antipsychotics for schizophrenia that do not provide the bursts of focus and purpose that stimulants do. Richard became enraged, his parents recalled. He tried to back up over his father in the Dominion Psychiatric parking lot and threatened to burn the house down. At home, he took a baseball bat from the garage, smashed flower pots and screamed, “You’re taking my medicine!”

Richard disappeared for a few weeks. He returned to the house when he learned of his grandmother’s death, the Fees said.

The morning after the funeral, Richard walked down Potters Road to what became a nine-minute visit with Dr. Ellison. He left with two prescriptions: one for Abilify, and another for 50 milligrams a day of Adderall.

According to Mr. Fee, Richard later told him that he had lied to Dr. Ellison — he told the doctor he was feeling great, life was back on track and he had found a job in Greensboro that he would lose without Adderall. Dr. Ellison’s notes do not say why he agreed to start Adderall again.

Richard’s delusions and mood swings only got worse, his parents said. They would lock their bedroom door when they went to sleep because of his unpredictable rages. “We were scared of our own son,” Mr. Fee said. Richard would blow through his monthly prescriptions in 10 to 15 days and then go through hideous withdrawals. A friend said that he would occasionally get Richard some extra pills during the worst of it, but that “it wasn’t enough because he would take four or five at a time.”

One night during an argument, after Richard became particularly threatening and pushed him over a chair, Mr. Fee called the police. They arrested Richard for domestic violence. The episode persuaded Richard to see another local psychiatrist, Dr. Charles Parker.

Mrs. Fee said she attended Richard’s initial consultation on June 3 with Dr. Parker’s clinician, Renee Strelitz, and emphasized his abuse of Adderall. Richard “kept giving me dirty looks,” Mrs. Fee recalled. She said she had later left a detailed message on Ms. Strelitz’s voice mail, urging her and Dr. Parker not to prescribe stimulants under any circumstances when Richard came in the next day.

Dr. Parker met with Richard alone. The doctor noted depression, anxiety and suicidal ideas. He wrote “no meds” with a box around it — an indication, he explained later, that he was aware of the parents’ concerns regarding A.D.H.D. stimulants.

Dr. Parker wrote three 30-day prescriptions: Clonidine (a sleep aid), Venlafaxine (an antidepressant) and Adderall, 60 milligrams a day.

In an interview last November, Dr. Parker said he did not recall the details of Richard’s case but reviewed his notes and tried to recreate his mind-set during that appointment. He said he must have trusted Richard’s assertions that medication was not an issue, and must have figured that his parents were just philosophically anti-medication. Dr. Parker recalled that he had been reassured by Richard’s intelligent discussions of the ins and outs of stimulants and his desire to pursue medicine himself.

“He was smart and he was quick and he had A’s and B’s and wanted to go to medical school — and he had all the deportment of a guy that had the potential to do that,” Dr. Parker said. “He didn’t seem like he was a drug person at all, but rather a person that was misunderstood, really desirous of becoming a physician. He was very slick and smooth. He convinced me there was a benefit.”

Mrs. Fee was outraged. Over the next several days, she recalled, she repeatedly spoke with Ms. Strelitz over the phone to detail Richard’s continued abuse of the medication (she found nine pills gone after 48 hours) and hand-delivered Dr. Sautter’s appraisal of his recent psychosis. Dr. Parker confirmed that he had received this information.

Richard next saw Dr. Parker on June 27. Mrs. Fee drove him to the clinic and waited in the parking lot. Soon afterward, Richard returned and asked to head to the pharmacy to fill a prescription. Dr. Parker had raised his Adderall to 80 milligrams a day.

Dr. Parker recalled that the appointment had been a 15-minute “med check” that left little time for careful assessment of any Adderall addiction. Once again, Dr. Parker said, he must have believed Richard’s assertions that he needed additional medicine more than the family’s pleas that it be stopped.

“He was pitching me very well — I was asking him very specific questions, and he was very good at telling me the answers in a very specific way,” Dr. Parker recalled. He added later, “I do feel partially responsible for what happened to this kid.”

“Paranoid and psychotic … thinking that the computer is spying on him. He has also been receiving messages from stars at night and he is unable to be talked to in a reasonable fashion … The patient denies any mental health problems … fairly high risk for suicide.”

Dr. John Riedler

Admission note for Richard Fee

Virginia Beach Psychiatric Center

July 8, 2011

The 911 operator answered the call and heard a young man screaming on the other end. His parents would not give him his pills. With the man’s language scattered and increasingly threatening, the police were sent to the home of Rick and Kathy Fee.

The Fees told officers that Richard was addicted to Adderall, and that after he had received his most recent prescription, they allowed him to fill it through his mother’s insurance plan on the condition that they hold it and dispense it appropriately. Richard was now demanding his next day’s pills early.

Richard denied his addiction and threats. So the police, noting that Richard was an adult, instructed the Fees to give him the bottle. They said they would comply only if he left the house for good. Officers escorted Richard off the property.

A few hours later Richard called his parents, threatening to stab himself in the head with a knife. The police found him and took him to the Virginia Beach Psychiatric Center.

Described as “paranoid and psychotic” by the admitting physician, Dr. John Riedler, Richard spent one week in the hospital denying that he had any psychiatric or addiction issues. He was placed on two medications: Seroquel and the antidepressant Wellbutrin, no stimulants. In his discharge report, Dr. Riedler noted that Richard had stabilized but remained severely depressed and dependent on both amphetamines and marijuana, which he would smoke in part to counter the buzz of Adderall and the depression from withdrawal.

(Marijuana is known to increase the risk for schizophrenia, psychosis and memory problems, but Richard had smoked pot in high school and college with no such effects, several friends recalled. If that was the case, “in all likelihood the stimulants were the primary issue here,” said Dr. Wesley Boyd, a psychiatrist at Children’s Hospital Boston and Cambridge Health Alliance who specializes in adolescent substance abuse.)

Unwelcome at home after his discharge from the psychiatric hospital, Richard stayed in cheap motels for a few weeks. His Adderall prescription from Dr. Parker expired on July 26, leaving him eligible for a renewal. He phoned the office of Dr. Ellison, who had not seen him in four months.

“moved out of the house — doesn’t feel paranoid or delusional. Hasn’t been on meds for a while — working with a friend wiring houses rto 3 months — doesn’t feel he needs the abilify or seroquel for sleep.”

Dr. Waldo M. Ellison

Notes on Richard Fee

July 25, 2011

The 2:15 p.m. appointment went better than Richard could have hoped. He told Dr. Ellison that the pre-psychotic and metaphoric thinking back in March had receded, and that all that remained was his A.D.H.D. He said nothing of his visits to Dr. Parker, his recent prescriptions or his week in the psychiatric hospital.

At 2:21 p.m., according to Dr. Ellison’s records, he prescribed Richard 30 days’ worth of Adderall at 50 milligrams a day. He also gave him prescriptions postdated for Aug. 23 and Sept. 21, presumably to allow him to get pills into late October without the need for follow-up appointments. (Virginia state law forbids the dispensation of 90 days of a controlled substance at one time, but does allow doctors to write two 30-day prescriptions in advance.)

Virginia is one of 43 states with a formal Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, an online database that lets doctors check a patient’s one-year prescription history, partly to see if he or she is getting medication elsewhere. Although pharmacies are required to enter all prescriptions for controlled substances into the system, Virginia law does not require doctors to consult it.

Dr. Ellison’s notes suggest that he did not check the program before issuing the three prescriptions to Richard, who filled the first within hours.

The next morning, during a scheduled appointment at Dr. Parker’s clinic, Ms. Strelitz wrote in her notes: “Richard is progressing. He reported staying off of the Adderall and on no meds currently. Focusing on staying healthy, eating well and exercising.”

About a week later, Richard called his father with more good news: a job he had found overseeing storm cleanup crews was going well. He was feeling much better.

But Mr. Fee noticed that the more calm and measured speech that Richard had regained during his hospital stay was gone. He jumped from one subject to the next, sounding anxious and rushed. When the call ended, Mr. Fee recalled, he went straight to his wife.

“Call your insurance company,” he said, “and find out if they’ve filled any prescriptions for Adderall.”

“spoke to father — richard was in VBPC [Virginia Beach Psychiatric Center] and OD on adderall — NO STIMULANTS — HE WAS ALSO SEEING DR. PARKER”

Dr. Waldo M. Ellison

Interoffice e-mail

Aug. 5, 2011

An insurance representative confirmed that Richard had filled a prescription for Adderall on July 25. Mr. Fee confronted Dr. Ellison in the Dominion Psychiatric parking lot.

Mr. Fee told him that Richard had been in the psychiatric hospital, had been suicidal and had been taking Adderall through June and July. Dr. Ellison confirmed that he had written not only another prescription but two others for later in August and September.

“He told me it was normal procedure and not 90 days at one time,” Mr. Fee recalled. “I flipped out on him: ‘You gave my son 90 days of Adderall? You’re going to kill him!’ ”

Mr. Fee said he and Dr. Ellison had discussed voiding the two outstanding scripts. Mr. Fee said he had been told that it was possible, but that should Richard need emergency medical attention, it could keep him from getting what would otherwise be proper care or medication. Mr. Fee confirmed that with a pharmacist and decided to drive to Richard’s apartment and try to persuade him to rip up the prescriptions.

“I know that you’ve got these other prescriptions to get pills,” Mr. Fee recalled telling Richard. “You’re doing so good. You’ve got a job. You’re working. Things with us are better. If you get them filled, I’m worried about what will happen.”

“You’re right,” Mr. Fee said Richard had replied. “I tore them up and threw them away.”

Mr. Fee spent two more hours with Richard making relative small talk — increasingly gnawed, he recalled later, by the sense that this was no ordinary conversation. As he looked at Richard he saw two images flickering on top of each other — the boy he had raised to love school and baseball, and the desperate addict he feared that boy had become.

Before he left, Mr. Fee made as loving a demand as he could muster.

“Please. Give them to me,” Mr. Fee said.

Richard looked his father dead in the eye.

“I destroyed them,” he said. “I don’t have them. Don’t worry.”

“Richard said that he has stopped Adderall and wants to work on continuing to progress.”

Renee Strelitz

Session notes

Sept. 13, 2011

Richard generally filled his prescriptions at a CVS on Laskin Road, less than three miles from his parents’ home. But on Aug. 23, he went to a different CVS about 11 miles away, closer to Norfolk and farther from the locations that his father might have called to alert them to the situation. For his Sept. 21 prescription he traveled even farther, into Norfolk, to get his pills.

On Oct. 3, Richard visited Dr. Ellison for an appointment lasting 17 minutes. The doctor prescribed two weeks of Strattera, a medication for A.D.H.D. that contains no amphetamines and, therefore, is neither a controlled substance nor particularly prone to abuse. His records make no mention of the Adderall prescription Richard filled on Sept. 21; they do note, however, “Father says that he is crazy and abusive of the Adderall — has made directives with regard to giving Richard anymore stimulants — bringing up charges — I explained this to Richard.”

Prescription records indicate that Richard did not fill the Strattera prescription before returning to Dr. Ellison’s office two weeks later to ask for more stimulants.

“Patient took only a few days of Strattera 40 mg — it calmed him but not focusing,” the doctor’s notes read. “I had told him not to look for much initially — He would like a list of MD who could rx adderall.”

Dr. Ellison never saw Richard again. Given his patterns of abuse, friends said, Richard probably took his last Adderall pill in early October. Because he abruptly stopped without the slow and delicate reduction of medication that is recommended to minimize major psychological risks, especially for instant-release stimulants, he crashed harder than ever.

Richard’s lifelong friend Ryan Sykes was one of the few people in contact with him during his final weeks. He said that despite Richard’s addiction to Adderall and the ease with which it could be obtained on college campuses nearby, he had never pursued it outside the doctors’ prescriptions.

“He had it in his mind that because it came from a doctor, it was O.K.,” Mr. Sykes recalled.

On Nov. 7, after arriving home from a weekend away, Mrs. Fee heard a message on the family answering machine from Richard, asking his parents to call him. She phoned back at 10 that night and left a message herself.

Not hearing back by the next afternoon, Mrs. Fee checked Richard’s cellphone records — he was on her plan — and saw no calls or texts. At 9 p.m. the Fees drove to Richard’s apartment in Norfolk to check on him. The lights were on; his car was in the driveway. He did not answer. Beginning to panic, Mr. Fee found the kitchen window ajar and climbed in through it.

He searched the apartment and found nothing amiss.

“He isn’t here,” Mr. Fee said he had told his wife.

“Oh, thank God,” she replied. “Maybe he’s walking on the beach or something.”

They got ready to leave before Mr. Fee stopped.

“Wait a minute,” he said. “I didn’t check the closet.”

“Spoke with Richard’s mother, Kathy Fee, today. She reported that Richard took his life last November. Family is devasted and having a difficult time. Offerred assistance for family.”

Renee Strelitz

Last page of Richard Fee file

June 21, 2012

Friends and former baseball teammates flocked to Richard Fee’s memorial service in Virginia Beach. Most remembered only the funny and gregarious guy they knew in high school and college; many knew absolutely nothing of his last two years. He left no note explaining his suicide.

At a gathering at the Fees’ house afterward, Mr. Fee told them about Richard’s addiction to Adderall. Many recalled how they, too, had blithely abused the drug in college — to cram, just as Richard had — and could not help but wonder if they had played the same game of Russian roulette.

“I guarantee you a good number of them had used it for studying — that shock was definitely there in that room,” said a Greensboro baseball teammate, Danny Michael, adding that he was among the few who had not. “It’s so prevalent and widely used. People had no idea it could be abused to the point of no return.”

Almost every one of more than 40 A.D.H.D. experts interviewed for this article said that worst-case scenarios like Richard Fee’s can occur with any medication — and that people who do have A.D.H.D., or parents of children with the disorder, should not be dissuaded from considering the proven benefits of stimulant medication when supervised by a responsible physician.

Other experts, however, cautioned that Richard Fee’s experience is instructive less in its ending than its evolution — that it underscores aspects of A.D.H.D. treatment that are mishandled every day with countless patients, many of them children.

“You don’t have everything that happened with this kid, but his experience is not that unusual,” said DeAnsin Parker, a clinical neuropsychologist in New York who specializes in young adults. “Diagnoses are made just this quickly, and medication is filled just this quickly. And the lack of therapy is really sad. Doctors are saying, ‘Just take the meds to see if they help,’ and if they help, ‘You must have A.D.H.D.’ ”

Dr. Parker added: “Stimulants will help anyone focus better. And a lot of young people like or value that feeling, especially those who are driven and have ambitions. We have to realize that these are potential addicts — drug addicts don’t look like they used to.”

Documentary screening and panel discussion on ADHD, “ADD and Loving It?!”

Listing, The Virginian-Pilot

Oct. 10, 2012

The Fees decided to go. The event was sponsored by the local chapter of Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder (Chadd), the nation’s primary advocacy group for A.D.H.D. patients. They wanted to attend the question-and-answer session afterward with local doctors and community college officials.

The evening opened with the local Chadd coordinator thanking the drug company Shire — the manufacturer of several A.D.H.D. drugs, including Vyvanse and extended-release Adderall — for partly underwriting the event. An hourlong film directed and narrated by two men with A.D.H.D. closed by examining some “myths” about stimulant medications, with several doctors praising their efficacy and safety. One said they were “safer than aspirin,” while another added, “It’s O.K. — there’s nothing that’s going to happen.”

Sitting in the fourth row, Mr. Fee raised his hand to pose a question to the panel, which was moderated by Jeffrey Katz, a local clinical psychologist and a national board member of Chadd. “What are some of the drawbacks or some of the dangers of a misdiagnosis in somebody,” Mr. Fee asked, “and then the subsequent medication that goes along with that?”

Dr. Katz looked straight at the Fees as he answered, “Not much.”

Adding that “the medication itself is pretty innocuous,” Dr. Katz continued that someone without A.D.H.D. might feel more awake with stimulants but would not consider it “something that they need.”

“If you misdiagnose it and you give somebody medication, it’s not going to do anything for them,” Dr. Katz concluded. “Why would they continue to take it?”

Mr. Fee slowly sat down, trembling. Mrs. Fee placed her hand on his knee as the panel continued.