"This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness." Dalai Lama

Why Ritalin makes me MAD!

by Bruce Cohen

FILED IN: Children · Issue 13

Saturday afternoon at the Wits Club in Jo’burg and Dr Shabeer Jeeva steps up to the microphone. The audience of 50-odd therapists, parents and educators perch attentively on their blue plastic chairs as he launches forth at a machine gun pace on the treatment of Attention Deficit Disorder/Hyperactivity (ADHD) in adults.

South African-born Jeeva studied medicine in Dublin and trained in Canada as a psychiatrist specializing in ADHD. He has over 20 years’ experience treating the restless, the impulsive, the distracted, the disobedient and the disorganised of every age. He is widely acknowledged as one of the country’s leading experts on ADHD.

So why am I so gob-smacked by his presentation at this annual seminar organized by ADHASA, the support group for ADHD sufferers (www.adhasa.co.za)?

Reason 1:
Jeeva tells us that short-acting Ritalin (which lasts for 4 hours) can be taken often – “just like Smarties” — and taken nogal on top of the sustained-release version of the same psycho-stimulant.

Reason 2:
One drug is not enough. He says the most effective treatment for ADHD amongst teens and adults often consists of cocktails of amphetamines and anti-depressants such as of Ritalin and Xyban, Concerta and Epilim or Prosac.

Reason 3:
South Africans are not getting enough of these drugs because our doctors are under-dosing. More not less is needed.

Reason 4:
Finally, he says, with some irritation, that all drugs have side-effects, so why are we singling out Ritalin (which has been blamed for causing severe depression, even suicide, amongst children)?

I am left reeling from this assault on my sensibilities and sensitivities about the treatment of ADHD.

Let me state my vested interest here. Over the last few years I have devoted a good deal of time to finding out about attention deficit because I distribute marine and organic oils containing Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids that are believed to be helpful in the treatment of ADHD.

My research has led me towards the various drug-free alternatives in the treatment of ADHD, towards nutrition and supplementation as well as various therapies. But as much as I have wanted to embrace a 100% drug-free approach, the evidence seems depressingly clear: in severe instances of ADHD there appears to be little alternative to the drugs. The #@&! stuff works!

I thought I had stumbled on solid ground when I came across a middle path: the “integrative” school of medicine that draws upon the best practices of orthodox medicine as well as complementary/alternative therapies.

Pioneered by Dr Andrew Weill in the US, this approach does not reject drugs per se, but will include them as part of an holistic strategy that includes nutrition, supplementation and natural remedies, the removal of known toxins and allergens, and various supportive therapies. Integrative medicine appeals to me: it looks at the total person in the context of their lived environment. It certainly does not rely on the prescription pad alone. Now all I need is to find someone who practices it!

Somehow, naively, I was hoping Jeeva’s talk would touch on that thinking. After all, he’s a global professional in touch with the latest trends and he must be acutely aware of how freaked out many parents are about having their kids on these drugs with their myriad side effects ranging from nausea to depression and even suicide.

But Jeeva wasn’t giving an inch. Not once did he mention dietary or lifestyle issues, or the role of occupational therapy, counselling, meditation etc. He did, however, warn that ADHD has a strong genetic component, further fuelling the sense of lack of control we have over our restless minds.

Jeeva took us on a whistle-stop tour of the psychiatrist’s drug cupboard, explaining which upper/downer combinations worked best depending on various orders of preference and “co-morbidities” such as depression and anxiety.
Drugs like Ritalin, Strattera and Concerta all act on an apparent imbalance in neurotransmitters in the brain and help “normalize” the message flow of these chemicals.
Exactly how they work is not clear. But behaviourally they tend to reduce spontaneity and curiosity, and subdue socialization.

Jeeva believes ADHD is by no means a childhood illness that kids grow just out of. On the contrary, he warns there is a higher than 60% chance of ADHD continuing into adulthood, which means kids could be on these drugs for ever. In broad brush-strokes, the typical treatment regime looks something like this:

Children 7-12: Psycho-stimulants such as Ritalin/Concerta, or Strattera.

Adolescents: Stimulants/Strattera with occasional anti-depressants.

Adults: Anti-depressants first and then stimulants/Strattera if necessary Jeeva has treated many hundreds of patients and clearly he gets results. Scattered brains start paying attention. Impulsive minds start thinking twice. Demand for instant gratification is denied/delayed. Broken families are put back together and sanity is restored to the classroom. Who can argue with such vast clinical experience, such proven efficacy? But before you put your child on such medication, I suggest you swallow a tablet of Ritalin yourself and experience the subtle mental dullness that quietly creeps up on you. Yes, there’s definitely an increase in focus, but it’s wrapped in cotton-wool, a gossamer narcotic cloud that renders you distant, self-absorbed, even aloof (it’s not surprising that one of the side-effects is reported loneliness and the inability to make friends). Well, that’s my experience anyway.

The idea that a young person (and they start drug therapy from the age of seven) can be dosed with such potent mood-altering drugs year in, year out, perhaps all the way through adulthood, is a chilling prospect indeed.

In the course of my business I have had numerous conversations with parents about the treatment of their ADHD children. Few ever mention that their doctors have suggested integrated approaches or discussed issues of diet and supplementation. All they seem to be getting are prescriptions, dosage tweaks and/or multi-drug cocktails.

Just about all of them seem desperate to get their kids off this stuff. While they acknowledge that the drugs help, they can see the personality changes and it worries them. They can see the side-effects and it scares them.

Jeeva’s presentation certainly scared the hell out of me. I know I was not the only one who felt this way. Walking out of the hall at the end of his talk I heard one delegate muttering to herself: “Smarties! Hmmmmmph! Smarties!” ü Bruce Cohen is CEO of Absolute Organix, a Johannesburg-based distributor of natural and organic products.
He can be contacted at bcohen@mweb.co.za


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  1. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!!!! Finally, someone else who is smart enough to recognize the dangers associated with these drugs! Does anyone care that for the first time ever, our children will NOT out live their parents! Considering the fact that we, as a society, are constantly over medicating our children, this new fact is not surprising, only devastating!

    My son was labeled as a “problem child” by his kindergarten teacher and principal at Lakeview Elementary School in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania. Not behavior mind you, but according to the school, “Conor is not yet reaching his full potential.” (HE WAS 5 YEARS OLD FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!!!!!!)

    Unfortunately, because the teachers were afraid of the principal, they continued to label Conor and lied constantly about behaviors they said happened, but other parents that were in the room at the time of these “incidents” have reported to my husband and I that the things the teachers were reporting were lies! Conor was constantly pleading with us not to send him to school, he started complaining of severe headaches, and would vomit at the drop of a hat! Trying to get the school off of Conor’s back, we tried a very low dose of Ritalin.

    The side effects were horrible, so we almost immediately discontinued it. After a student teacher labeled Conor as “unteachable without the use if medication” my husband and I began looking at different educational options for our son. We pulled him out of that hell hole, and transfered him to Saint Madeline/Saint Rose in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania. Conor is still not medicated, and I am happy to report that on his first report card at Saint Mad’s, Conor got all mid to high 80’s, he won 3rd Prize at the Science Fair, and the organized sports we were told Conor would never be able to play unless we medicated him, well, my happy, well adjusted, secure 10 year old son was just picked for the Ridley ABA Basketball All-Stars. The Terra-Nova National Tests, Conor scored between Average to Above Average.
    My husband and I don’t need our little boy to get straight A’s in school in order for us to love him, we just need our little boy to be happy!

    Parents need to stop working so much in order to give their children everything materialistic. If we just give our children our time, support and love, we could probably decrease the amount of medication substantially.

    Thank you again, Mr. Cohen. Your words are comforting and encouraging!

    Michelle O’Brien

    Comment by Michelle O'Brien

  2. I still need to know if putting my child on Ritalin will be beneficial- he does take Omega 3 & 6 and is extremally clever but disruptive!

    Comment by Ruth

    ‘Critics charge that often prescribed stimulant medications such as methyl- phenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamines, though necessary in many cases, are over- prescribed, perhaps as much as 10 - 40% of the time’. Methyl- phenidate is a central nervous system stimulant that shares many of the pharmacological effects of amphetamine, methamphetamine(‘Tik’) and cocaine’. From: (Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from Nature Deficit Disorder: Richard Louv,2008)

    What if the huge increase in Methamphetamine use (Tik) in the Western Cape today is linked to prescribing Ritalin to children when they were younger?

    If there is a similarity between the chemical composition of Methamphetamines and Ritalin, then surely the brain of a child who was dosed with Ritalin over a significant period of time, would readily recognise and take to a similar drug like Methamphetamine, when re –introduced?

    Could this be the reason why so many of Cape Town’s youth are now addicted to Tik?

    When speaking to a group of parents of a group of 7 year olds the other day, it transpired that most of the parents were advised by the educators to ‘put their children on Ritalin’ because they were fidgety in class!

    Could we not be just creating our next generation of drug addicts?

    Comment by Terry Corr

  4. I need some desperate help!
    i found out last week that my gorgeous little girl (6years and 8 months)has been on ritalin for the last 2 weeks without my knowledge or consent!
    I am divorced and currently on contract in Mozambique, however i religiously drive to JHB in order to see my little angels, Courtney and Ronan.
    On finding out about this i immediately contacted the school to find out if they are experiencing any problems with my daughter. They stated NO and then told me that they are very surprised to see that Courtney is on this medication. I then approached the Clinical psychologist and asked what is going on with my daughter?
    The following transpired:
    1.) My ex took my boy to see the psychologist and not my daughter. (This shows me that there was no problem with my daughter in the first place!)
    2.) The psychologist then noticed my daughter and stated that she would like to see her.
    3.) The Psy then did various tests on my daughter and came to a conclusion that my daughter was ADD (predominantly inattentive type).
    4.) She immediatley referred her to a peadiatrecian (that she knew) and he immediately put my daughter on a dosage of 1/2 a pill in the morning and 1/2 a pill in the afternoon.
    5.) When I asked my ex why I was not informed about this she stated that the clinical psychologist had advised her not to tell me until after my girl had seen the peadiatrician as she knows that I would have a problem with the ritalin prescription.
    6.) I approached the clinical psychologist about all of the above and she immediatley went onto the back foot stating that she had not expected me to come and see her and that she will not get involved in marrital issues.

    My daughter has never had problems at school!
    She never had problems at home! (My ex is however pregnant and this could have a negative impact on Courtney.)
    The psychologist prescibes ritalin to my child without my consent or without advising me of alternative measures. (I have joint custody in my children and think that this MUST be a prerequisite for any professional to be aware of and consent must be granted from both parties.
    I went to see my daughter at her school this morning and she was so drugged that it broke my heart!
    I spoke to my ex and she states that the drug is working because Courtney doesn’t fight with her brother anymore…(????)Is this what my daughter is being treated for??
    My e-mail address is - fernando.dejaneiro@kawenamineiros.com

    Comment by Fernando Janeiro

  5. I’m 24 years old. I take Ritalin. And its out of choice. I can tell you that before I was on it, I always had trouble focusing in school and university. I only started taking it 3 years after leaving school and ever since then - I have not failed a single thing, whereas before I was failing about half of my university courses. And I tried almost every other “solution” before resorting to Ritalin. It has not made me less sociable - maybe somewhat more relaxed and collected.
    There is one negative side effect which I have experienced. And that would be the fact that it DOES cause depression. But this depression only comes while the drug is wearing off and only lasts about an hour. Furthermore, I have only experienced this depression around the time of year when I’m writing exams because this is when I take the highest dosage(approx. 3 pills a day, 10mg each).
    Under normal circumstances, I will take only one a day - half a pill at a time. This is usually sufficient for me to sustain a high level of concentration without ANY side effects.
    In all honesty, I probably wouldn’t have my degree today if it weren’t for Ritalin. That’s not to say its for everyone - but for me, the pros definitely outweigh the cons.

    Comment by Richard

  6. For those of you who still need a little more convincing that Ritalin is a dangerous drug, do your own research into the ’school shootings’ in the USA - you will find that most of the children involved (if not all) are on Ritalin. The sad thing is that Ritalin does its job - it dumbs the children down and makes the life of the teacher easier. If a teacher (who is untrained in medical matters) wants to put your child on Ritalin, take him/her to a school where the teachers do their job properly. At the same time, check your child’s diet for refined sugars, refined carbohydrates and soft drinks. They all adversely affect your child’s behaviour. Nutrition first, medication last.

    Comment by Sarah

  7. Please help! I’m so torn. I want to help my 7 1/2 yr old son without putting him on medication. He is on IQ supplement and I have not seen any improvement yet, 4 wks later. I have denied for yrs that he has ADHD and that it is a myth but I know this is not true. To add to our woes I have researched ODD and I have no doubt that he suffers from this too. I use flax seed omega 3:6:9 he eats very healthy, exercises, watches minimal TV, has no computer or playstation time although we have both @ home and get lots of love but still he continues to tear my family apart. I love my son dearly but feel weak and broken from all the fighting. Please can anybody give me any advise????????

    Comment by Edwina

  8. Dear Edwina,
    I have tried the extra Omega and no tv and no playstation, no coffee, no coke etc. but I believe that when your child suffers from ADHD, whatever love and attention you give to this, you need more. You need medication to help too. I am so against it, but my son struggles to do homework for example (grade 2). He fidgets all the time, cannot sit still etc. I took him off Ritalin because othe depression, headaches and nausia. In the interim I have been to our Dr yesterday and asked him what to do as I just didnt know which way to go. He suggested Strattera, which is newer on the market with less research done on it (a lot more expensive then Ritallin…), but apparently the side effects are less. So I received the meds today and will start giving it to my son from tomorrow and have already allerted his teacher to inform her to keep an eye on him.

    I have always known that my son has a problem. From when he was a baby I knew that one day I would come to this place in my life where I would have to make these hard decisions re meds etc. I cannot afford to send him to a private school with smaller classes etc. I know that would help.

    People who do not have ADHD children cannot comment on Ritallin etc. For some kids it works great others not. But when it works which it did for my son (his school work improved immensily) it is great, but the side effects made me tak him off it.

    I see good and bad comments on Strattera and hope that this will work for my son. Its a drugg that he however has to take without “breaks” so he has to take one in the morning (all day lasting) and every weekend, holiday etc. No breaks. I hate the idea of him having to go onto a permanent medication, but this is a trial run so we will monitor him. Should it work great, should it not I will cross that bridge when I get there.

    Richard Branson has ADHD and so did Albert Einstein. Our kids are bright, they just need extra help then other kids and unfortunately it makes is very hard for us as parents to make decisions regarding medication etc.

    All the best to everyone who fights this daily battle.

    (Johannesburg SA)

    Comment by Hannelie

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