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Landmark Study Wrongly Claimed Meds Best Treatment for ADHD, Authors Say

By Allison McCabe 01/02/14

Experts now believe that a combination of medication and therapy may yield the best treatment results.

Treating ADHD Photo via Shutterstock

Experts are claiming that a 20-year-old study funded by the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health may have incorrectly claimed that medication was more effective at treating childhood ADHD than a combination of medication and therapy or even therapy by itself.

The original study involved treating 600 children with ADHD with one of four methods: medication alone, therapy alone, medication and therapy together, or nothing beyond any treatment they may have already received. Based on the conclusions of more than a dozen experts involved in the original experiment, the study’s authors concluded that medication was more effective than therapy.

Now some of those same experts are criticizing the results of the test, claiming that the original experiment focused on classic ADHD symptoms like forgetfulness and restlessness and did not take into account academic achievement and social adjustment. Additionally, a follow up paper reported that the conclusions of the study did not carry over into adulthood. The success of treatment “does not predict functioning six to eight years later.”

Dr. Peter Jensen, who oversaw the study for the NIMH, found that the families involved in the study preferred combined treatment. “They didn’t not like medicine, but they valued skill training. What doctors think are the best outcomes and what families think are the best outcomes aren’t always the same thing.”

Unfortunately, the study’s findings have been used by insurance companies to deny coverage for psychosocial therapy for ADHD, depriving children of what might possibly be the most effective treatment for the condition. The study has also been used to bolster the pharmaceutical companies’ already over-the-top ADHD marketing; currently over two thirds of American children with ADHD take medication for the disorder.

"I hope it didn't do irreparable damage," said Dr. Lily Hechtman, who co-authored the study. "The people who pay the price in the end [are] the kids. That's the biggest tragedy in all of this."

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Allison McCabe is the editor in chief of The Fix. She has written for LA Weekly, Village Voice, Junk: a literary fix, Ramshackle Review, Main Street Journal and others. Follow Allison on Twitter.

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