HARTFORD, Conn. — When Sheila Matthews’ son was in first grade, a school psychologist diagnosed him with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and gave his parents information on Ritalin.
Matthews refused to put him on the drug. She believed the boy was energetic and outgoing but not disruptive, and she suspected the school system was trying to medicate him just to make it easier for the teachers. Now the state of Connecticut has weighed in on the side of parents like Matthews with a first-in-the-nation law that reflects a growing backlash against what some see as overuse of Ritalin and other behavioral drugs.
The law – approved unanimously by the Legislature and signed by Gov. John G. Rowland – prohibits teachers, counselors and other school officials from recommending psychiatric drugs for any child.
The measure does not prevent school officials from recommending that a child be evaluated by a medical doctor. But the law is intended to make sure the first mention of drugs for a behavior or learning problem comes from a doctor.
The chief sponsor, state Rep. Lenny Winkler, is an emergency room nurse. “I cannot believe how many young kids are on Prozac, Thorazine, Haldol – you name it,” Winkler said. “It blows my mind.”
While she has no problem with the use of Ritalin under a doctor’s care, Winkler said a teacher’s recommendation is often enough to persuade parents to seek drug treatment for their child’s behavior problems.
“It’s easier to give somebody a pill than to get to the bottom of the problem,” she said.
Nationally, nearly 20 million prescriptions for Ritalin, Adderall and other stimulants used to treat ADHD were written last year — a 35 percent increase over 1996, according to IMS Health, a health care information company. Most of those prescriptions were for boys under 12, IMS Health said.
In some elementary and middle schools, as many as 6 percent of all students take Ritalin or other psychiatric drugs, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
Dr. Andres Martin, a child psychiatrist at the Yale University Child Study Center, said schools have no business practicing psychiatry.
“We’ve all heard these horror stories of parents who are told, ‘If you don’t medicate your child, he can’t be in the classroom,”’ he said. “You never hear the school say, ‘If you don’t take the damn appendix out, this kid has a bad outcome.’ You say, ‘Your kid has a stomach ache. Take him to the doctor.”’
The Connecticut Association of Boards of Education has taken no position on the bill. Nor has the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. But union President Rosemary Coyle said the she believes the problem is overstated.
“I really believe teachers do not practice medicine,” Coyle said. “We don’t recommend kids get on drugs.”
Concern about Ritalin and other drugs is widespread. The Texas Board of Education adopted a resolution last year recommending that schools consider non-medical solutions to behavior problems. The Colorado school board approved a similar resolution in 1999, and legislation regarding psychiatric drugs in school has been proposed in nearly a dozen states.
In the New Canaan school district, Matthews and her husband took their son, now 8, to a private psychologist, who said the boy has trouble with reasoning. He now receives special education from the school system.
“I was able to get, for $2,000, a different label that has an educational connotation, rather than medical,” said Matthews, who did not want her son’s name used.
New Canaan district officials did not return repeated calls for comment. But Matthews said she has resolved many of her differences with the school system, which did not threaten to remove her son from class.
“I’m really thrilled” about the new law, she said, “because it gives parents an awareness that there should be a clear difference between education and medication. Our schools are now getting into the field of mental health. That’s not what we send our children to school for.”