Does Medication Help ADHD? What Science Has to Say

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Driven to Distraction" by Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Does medication help ADHD? Why are some people against medication?

Certain medications can help manage ADHD, but there is a stigma behind taking medication for this condition. In Driven to Distraction, Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey explain that some people believe they’ll become dependent on medication if they try it.

Let’s look at how the authors suggest handling these misconceptions.

Medication for ADHD

Does medication help ADHD? According to the authors, some people with ADHD can successfully manage their condition through a combination of education, structure, and therapy. Others may need to add a medication to their treatment regimen. Medications used to treat ADHD include stimulants, such as Ritalin, Concerta, and Adderall, and antidepressants, such as Wellbutrin and Strattera. These drugs work by increasing the brain’s levels of certain neurotransmitters: norepinephrine, dopamine (in the case of stimulants), and serotonin (in the case of antidepressants). This improves focus and can also act as a mood stabilizer. So yes, medication can help manage ADHD, but of course, it can’t cure it.

(Shortform note: adding a medication to your ADHD treatment regimen can be difficult if you have co-occurring disorders. It may be necessary to treat those other conditions before addressing ADHD if their symptoms are severe. Medications used to treat other conditions like depression or substance use may make ADHD symptoms worse, and ADHD medication may make symptoms from those other conditions worse.)

Once an ADHD diagnosis is made and you opt for medication, you’ll need to identify the specific symptoms you want to target—for instance, inattentiveness, difficulty regulating emotions, or trouble staying organized. Selecting these target symptoms will make it easier to tell if the medication is helping. The effectiveness of medication varies from person to person, and it doesn’t work for everyone, but for some, it can be life-changing. 

(Shortform note: Identifying your target symptoms can be overwhelming, so it’s helpful to start by identifying which ones interfere the most with your life. You may want to ask family members or friends to help you identify these if you’re having trouble narrowing them down. Sometimes you may need to start with a behavior—such as interrupting others frequently or losing things—and then trace that back to the symptom—which could be impulsivity or distractibility.)

Still, medication can be a tricky subject, as it carries social stigma and misconceptions. Patients with ADHD—and particularly parents of children with ADHD—may resist trying medication. They may feel like depending on a medication is a weakness, or they may object to what they see as “drugging” their child. Despite some common misconceptions, medications don’t cloud your senses or strip away your personality, nor are they addictive at the dosage level they’re given to treat ADHD.

Some people may also feel that being put on medication is proof that there’s something wrong with them or that they have a cognitive disability when they don’t believe that label applies to them. The authors emphasize that these feelings should not be dismissed but rather handled respectfully, and that no one should ever feel pressured to take medication they don’t want to take.

Sources of Concerns About Medication and Counterarguments

Part of the stigma associated with ADHD medication results from its misuse by people without ADHD. Some people take stimulant medication to get high or to counteract sedating substances, which leads to the misconception that people with ADHD are taking it for the same reasons. However, in people with ADHD, stimulants do not provide this “high” but instead have a calming effect, allowing them to better manage their symptoms.

Other people are hesitant about stimulant medication because some of them are amphetamines, which are notorious for being highly addictive and harmful. However, this is only the case when they’re used improperly, at higher doses than prescribed, or for recreational purposes. The idea of being dependent on a medication for a psychiatric issue is also off-putting to some. But we usually have no problem with the idea of depending on a medication for a physical ailment. For instance, few people would argue that someone with epilepsy should stop taking their medication because they shouldn’t be dependent on it. Presenting the prospect of ADHD medication to patients by comparing it to medication for physical conditions can help them feel more comfortable with it.

Does Medication Help ADHD? What Science Has to Say

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Here's what you'll find in our full Driven to Distraction summary:

  • What ADD is, theories on the possible causes, and potential treatments
  • How our knowledge of ADD has changed since the book’s republication in 2011
  • Tips for how to minimize your negative symptoms and make the most of your strengths

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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