Nick Haslam reviews 'ADHD Nation: The disorder. The drugs. The inside story.' by Alan Schwarz

The spectrum of opinion on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – ADHD in the acronym-crazed world of psychiatry – runs from the firiest red to the deepest purple. At the radical red extreme, critics see the diagnosis as a dangerous fiction, scripted by Big Pharma so that rambunctious youth can be profitably pacified. At the violet end, advocates view the condition as a disorder of the brain, its validity attested to by mountains of genetic and neuroscientific evidence and its treatment necessarily biomedical. Parents of affected children tend to lean in this direction, pulled by some combination of medical authority, relief from the moralistic judgement that wild children must have deficient care-givers, and the appeal of a pharmacological solution to their troubles.

Alan Schwarz is no scarlet radical, but his book on the history and politics of ADHD glows like a slow-burning ember. Schwarz acknowledges the reality of pathological inattention and hyperactivity, and does not deny that the condition has a neurobiological dimension. His critique does not undermine the essential idea of ADHD so much as the way it has been stretched, marketed, and leveraged by commercial interests, with the willing connivance of mental health professionals. Without dismissing the value of medication in the treatment of ADHD, Schwarz is refreshingly scathing in his assessment of some of the main pharmaceutical players and their medical mouthpieces.

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