Advocates say just prescribing drugs for Black youth doesn’t solve problems

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( – The Rev. Fred Shaw, Jr., of the Basic Life Institute in Compton, Calif., has been working with troubled youth and gang-bangers for over a decade. But as he tries to help them turn their lives around, the specter of drugs has surfaced. Not illegal drugs, like crack cocaine or meth, but legal drugs that the activist is concerned with.

He believes psychotropic drugs, like Ritalin, are over-prescribed, and hastily dispensed to control young people, instead of helping them deal with serious emotional and social problems. “We don’t even know the full scope of the impact of these drugs on our youth and people don’t care enough to test whether or not it’s the stimulants that are causing them to shoot and violently kill one another,” he said.


Before working with the Basic Life Institute, the Rev. Shaw co-owned a group home and was stunned by the number of Black youth that were medicated. “African Americans are 16 percent of the nation’s student population but we’re 32 percent of students being drugged, but it’s so entrenched into the system that people have bought into the process wholesale,” he said.

He believes authorities stopped referring clients because he opposed drugging of youth in his group home. The activist also believes mental health drug campaigns are well orchestrated and pushed by pharmaceutical companies. “They fund the psychiatric research, then the psychiatrists develop diagnoses which allows the companies to sell their drugs through them. One hand is washing the other, and they have studied normal adolescent behaviors and made them mental disorders,” Rev. Shaw charged.

Psychotropic drugs are prescribed to treat mental disorders and diseases. That means the same drugs may be used to calm youngsters who are hyper and to stimulate young people who may be depressed.

The most common diagnosis that results in drug treatments is Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). According to the FDA, ADHD accounts for up to 50 percent of mental health referrals for children and at least 7.5 percent of all school-aged children are affected by ADHD. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that 4.7 million children between 3-17 years of age were diagnosed with ADHD. The percentage of boys was 9.5 percent while girls comprised 5.9 percent.

The fears voiced by Rev. Shaw aren’t new and Black psychologists have raised questions about the impact and long-term effects of drugging Black children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. Some federal warnings boost their worries.

Last year, the Food and Drug Administration ordered manufacturers of psychotropic drugs to develop patient medication guides to warn of possible cardiovascular risks associated with the drugs. Such drugs, which include Ritalin, Concerta, Adderall and Strattera, are usually given to children diagnosed with ADD or ADHD. Side affects include anxiety or nervousness; headache or dizziness; insomnia; headache, stomach pain, sleeplessness and decreased appetite.

Early last year, the FDA also indicated that ADHD medicines showed a slight risk (about 1 per 1,000) for drug-related psychiatric adverse events, including hearing voices, becoming suspicious for no reason, or becoming manic, even in patients who did not have previous psychiatric problems.

The Centers for Disease Control lists symptoms of ADHD as often fidgeting with hands or feet; squirming in seat; running or climbing when inappropriate; feeling restless; often on the go and talks excessively; and often acting as if driven by a motor.

According to Dr. Ronald Beavers, a psychologist with the Positive Imagery Foundation in South Los Angeles, Black children are disproportionately represented because their needs are greater.

“Our children are locked more into the system and when you look at the statistics and those in foster care and up for adoption, and see what ethnic group is overrepresented, question marks should be coming up because it’s African Americans. Eighty percent of adoptions and 80 percent of foster care are Black children,” Dr. Beavers told The Final Call.

Alternatives to drugs, like group counseling, life skills and culturally competent parenting education, are usually counted out because they cost time and money, he added.

“The ultimate alternative for Blacks is learning how to live,” Dr. Beavers said.

An employee with the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services told The Final Call, the department tracks foster care children who are taking psychotropic drugs, but the numbers are not easy to get. Even high-ranking employees find it difficult to get the actual facts about the drugging of children because the numbers are an embarrassment to the department, said the employee, who has a background in social work. The employee asked to remain anonymous.

Problems in education

School is often the place where youngsters are diagnosed with behavioral problems and Black males are disproportionately diagnosed as having problems. Some Black psychiatrists say drugs aren’t the only way to capture the attention of Black boys. There are ways to shorten and gear lesson plans toward male interests and utilize training in male learning styles to improve classroom behavior, they say.

Although they believe medication is warranted for children with learning disorders, some Black psychiatrists say viable alternatives must not be bypassed. Drugs, they say, are often used to control Black youth.

“Part of the problem is we don’t know what the hell they are putting into our kids or into us. As a nation of people, if we had a nation, then we would start by doing some blood work on these kids to see just what’s happening with their chemistry and just what these people are injecting into us,” said Dr. Harry Davidson of the International Association of African Healers, Thinkers and Priests.

On the other hand, he said, Blacks cannot deny that a lot of pathology exits in the community. It is not enough to know that something is wrong, he said, but you have to ask why? What is in the medicine, as well as the food, water and air people are breathing? asked the psychiatrist.

U.S. leading nation in drugging children

“My biggest issue with any kind of involvement with medications is that we remain ignorant and rely on people to educate us about it. Black people tend to, even though they don’t trust physicians, accept what they tell them, or their ignorance propels them to avoid what they need. Ignorance either way plays a role to the point where people say, ‘I don’t need that.’ Well you might,” said Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary, a Portland-based psychologist and author of “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome—America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing.”

“What stands in the middle is how do you educate yourself to be able to make intelligent decisions around whether your children should be medicated or not or how much and it does not mean that at the end of the day you say no. It may mean at the end of the day you say yes, but I think that we have to end that tendency to just blindly follow, particularly people who have letters behind their names, educators, doctors. They tell us and we feel like we have to trust it,” Dr. Leary said.

Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu, a Chicago-based author and lecturer, acknowledged special education classes are necessary for some children. But he works to get Black male youth out of such classes, which he deems are the road to ADHD diagnosis and drugging. It has become a new form of tracking and segregation, argued the author of “Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys.”

“African American children are 17 percent of the children in public schools, but we’re 41 percent of the special education children,” he noted.

“My first concern is that there is no country that gives more children Ritalin than America. There are over seven million children in America that receive Ritalin and only 20 percent of America’s children receive a medical exam. That is illegal and unconstitutional,” he said.

Dr. Davidson believes the tracking starts in the classroom. “How do you make the determination as to whether this kid is actually suffering from ADD, particularly when there are environmental issues to be considered? Oft times the whole process will start in the classroom so the person who is actually providing the diagnosis is not properly equipped to do so,” he said. The answer is better classroom management, teacher preparation and training, not drugs, Dr. Davidson argued.

At one school, Dr. Davidson was asked to manage some 70 children, which meant providing few therapeutic services. “I’m not seeing the kid, the parents, or having any interaction into the classroom setting. It’s impossible to manage 70 kids,” he said.

“Why don’t we have behavioral clinics that explore and assess socially and psychologically to determine exactly what is interfering with our children’s ability to function in the classroom. Instead of labeling them psychiatric (problems) and prescribing medication,” said Dr. Davidson.

Although the psychiatrists say Black children are disproportionately diagnosed or misdiagnosed with ADHD, Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity counters that Black and Hispanic-Latino youth are underrepresented in treatment for ADHD compared with prevalence rates and compared with Caucasians.

The membership organization that supports individuals, parents, teachers and professionals. It disputes claims Black children are over-diagnosed with ADHD and over-medicated, saying there are sparse resources and barriers to treatment.

“You’ve got psychologists, psychiatrists and counselors that are of European descent and a different type of value system and what they feel is best for Black and Brown children. Secondly, in the European model they tend to treat certain issues outside of behavior modification and counseling with medication, Valium, Prednisone, and Prozac, so if you’re a professional that uses that methodology, quite naturally you will translate that into how you deal with children in your community and your schools,” countered Mr. Guynn added.

Michael Guynn, president of the Association of Black Social Workers of Greater Los Angeles, said the disproportionate misdiagnosis of Blacks can be from “over zealousness or the lack of effort by professionals to really want to treat the issue.”

“If you survey the kids, they’ll tell you that the drugs make them feel bad. In our group home, we had young men who would walk the building at night; they couldn’t sleep well; one would put toothpaste all over his face and sit under a tree until two in the morning,” recalled Rev. Shaw.

“Then we had those who really acted perhaps as bad as people who did hard drugs, like put sugar in gas tanks, but only the kids who were on the psychotropic drugs did these types of things. They went above and beyond and when they became violent, it was hard to calm them down.

“Another thing is, and we don’t realize, the suicidal and homicidal tendencies behind those drugs. Probation knew that we wouldn’t want to take the children into group homes if they were on the drugs, but they sneak them in by taking them off the drugs, but when they entered our home and acted out we would find out that they in fact on the psychotropic drugs,” he said.

Black psychiatrists say Black America needs to face up to challenges outside the community and inside the community. Violence and abuse in Black neighborhoods needs to be dealt with and healthier communities need to be created, they said.

Black health professionals, educators and parents need to work together in the best interest of Black children, they added. Solid partnerships will mean fewer abuses because the focus will be on meeting the child’s needs and not just controlling behavior, they said.

Blacks also need to learn more about mental illness and disorders and the drugs used to treat these problems and demand that mental health challenges be met with a variety of treatments, not just a drug regimen, the health professionals added.