Why French Kids Rarely Have ADHD

Family therapist Marilyn Wedge has been causing a stir for the past several years over her article “Why French Kids Don’t Have ADHD.” She states that American kids have an ADHD rate of at least 9 percent, while only 0.5 percent of their French counterparts have the same diagnosis.

Interesting. If ADHD is an exclusively biological phenomenon, then you should not see such different rates between French and American children. Not unless there’s something in the water in France, or America.

She describes the labeling process for both countries, the U.S. using the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and the French using the CFTMEA, as one of the cultural differences.

Yes. Labeling matters. Most people do not understand that the psychiatric manual of mental disorders is descriptive in nature. It simply describes behaviors – such as failing to concentrate, failing to pay attention – and then concludes that they are, in fact, illnesses.

That’s not how science works. You can’t describe something and then, merely from having described it, presume to know its cause. Yet that’s not only what mental health professionals do every day, but teachers as well. “Johnny isn’t paying attention. Johnny has ADHD,” concludes a teacher, or even a parent. But if ADHD is a mental illness that only a mental health professional can diagnose, then how can a teacher have the final say? No answer, because the question is never asked. It’s taken as an article of faith, and ultimately as a matter of practice beyond questioning. If you don’t pay attention, it can only mean one thing: ADHD. End of discussion.

That’s how you explain the difference between the prevalence of ADHD in French children versus American children. It’s not that French children are inherently superior. It’s just that the French talk and think about matters related to childhood attention in different ways from Americans. From what I’m reading, it sounds like the French are more rational about it.

Dr. Wedge states “the DSM specifically does not consider underlying causes.” In contrast, “French clinicians are successful at finding and repairing what has gone awry in the child’s social context” leading to their lower rates of ADHD.

In other words, French mental health professionals are not merely looking at the brain. They are looking at the child’s behavior, the child’s interactions with peers and adults, and presumably the child’s thinking and emotions.

It’s amazing. Mental health professionals, by definition, are trained in evaluating human behaviors, thoughts and emotions. Mental health professionals are not neurologists (who specialize in the brain), nor even (in most cases) psychiatrists, who specialize in prescribing medication for the brain in hopes of altering emotions, thoughts and behaviors. Yet the vast majority of them diagnose and treat ADHD as if it’s an exclusively neurological phenomenon.

Perhaps ADHD is biological in some cases. I know credible examples of people who take medication for ADHD, and their levels of concentration or behaviors are altered. Many others prescribed medication do not report a difference. This probably suggests overdiagnosis, or misdiagnosis, even if we assume that ADHD does exist. Of course, if you read the DSM-5 (the current manual for diagnosing ADHD), you will find the definition somewhat vague and subjective. Almost anyone fits this description at one time or another. In order to properly understand something, you must know the whole picture. That’s where French mental health professionals are beating American mental health professionals, because they’re relying more on observation of reality than a bias preordained by a psychiatric “bible.”

Drawing from Pamela Druckerman’s book “Bringing up Bebe,” Dr. Wedge cites the desire to look beyond the symptoms and find the root of the problem as the biggest reason for the difference in the statistics. In France, a child’s diet, the structure to his day, the family hierarchy, and discipline are the first lines of treatment; in America, medication is the first, and typically, the only option.

Amazing. Most Americans do not trust profit-making corporations, especially big ones. They vote in droves to attack big business and profit. Yet these same Americans put blind faith and trust in drug companies who peddle the line that ADHD is exclusively neurological and you’ve got to get your child on their medication—and now!

I am not bashing profit-making in pharmaceuticals, nor opposing a free market, not for a minute. Most of us would be dead if pharmaceutical companies were not allowed to compete, profit and exist. But to thrive intelligently in life, you have to be a critical thinker. Consider the possibility that we’re the product of more than our physiology. Consider that other facts such as thoughts, ideas, emotions, behaviors and incentives drive our ability and willingness to pay attention – or not pay attention.

In this arena, the French have the better approach.

I’m not convinced ADHD is automatically and always bad. I’m currently reading Thomas Edison’s biography. If ever there was an example of ADHD, this man was it. He jumped from project to project. Yet he gave us most of modern civilization as we know it. ADHD cannot be all bad. Who knows what innovation and discovery have been hampered or extinguished by the ignorance spread on this subject?

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