By Laura Clark
Last updated at 6:01 PM on 11th May 2010
NHS spending on 'chemical cosh' drugs to treat hyperactivity has soared by two-thirds to £31million in just four years, new figures revealed yesterday.
Nearly 750,000 prescriptions are now being doled out every year for Ritalin and similar drugs - most of them to children.
The surge triggered concerns that children are being unnecessarily drugged as poor discipline is increasingly seen as a medical issue.
Teachers warned today that prescribing calming drugs was often cheaper and easier than 'talking cures' and parenting support.
Over-use: experts claim that prescribing drugs such as Ritalin to children is an 'easier' option than discipline at schools or parental support
Three drugs are now routinely used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which is characterised by disruptive behaviour, impulsiveness and difficulties focusing on specific tasks.
These are drugs based on methylphenidate (Ritalin), atomoxetine (Strattera) and dexamfetamine (Dexedrine).
Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act show that NHS spending on the three drugs in England alone rose from £18.97million in 2005 to £31.14million in 2009.
An increase in the cost of the drugs partly accounts for increase. But statistics also show that, over the same period, the number of prescriptions issued by doctors surged, from 486,536 to 744,078.
'VIAGRA FOR THE BRAIN'
Ritalin is from the same drug family as cocaine and amphetamines and increases levels of the brain chemical dopamine, reducing restlessness and promoting concentration.
Children who take ADHD drugs for 36 months are about an inch shorter and six pounds lighter than their peers, according to US researchers, and may need a 'drug holiday' to catch up.
ADHD could be a mark of genius, according to academics in Ireland. Oscar Wilde, Che Guevara, Walter Raleigh, Picasso, Kurt Cobain and Lord Byron - all thought to have been ADHD sufferers - may owe their success to 'risk-taking' genes that play a role in the condition.
Ritalin is a Class B controlled drug and illegal possession is punishable with a five-year jail sentence or fine.
Hyperactive children given Ritalin do better in exams than ADHD youngsters who do not take drugs, according to US research, which studied 600 primary pupils and found they were three months ahead in reading and two months in maths.
Ritalin has been described as 'Viagra for the brain' and a 'smart drug' that can boost brainpower in healthy people by boosting concentration; critics say there are too many risks in taking it unless for serious cases of ADHD.
Doctors have warned that Ritalin tablets are being sold in school playgrounds for just a few pence a time to pupils in search of an illicit 'high'.
Growing numbers of Oxford University students are taking Ritalin and other so-called smart pills to boost performance in exams, according to an investigation last year. They are buying the tablets online and trading them in college libraries.
Doctors have warned that competitive parents are increasingly giving healthy children Ritalin pills in a bid to boost their exam grades and university chances.
The figures may underestimate the true scale of spending since private prescriptions and those handed out by in-house hospital pharmacies are excluded from the data, which was issued to The Guardian by the NHS Business Services Authority.
Official NHS guidelines recommend drug treatment for the most severely affected but some doctors take this more literally than others.
Figures published in 2008 showed that doctors in the Wirral dispensed one Ritalin prescription for every seven children under 16, although this did not equate to one in seven children taking Ritalin - since one child could have repeat prescriptions.
Across England, the average was one for every 23 children, while Stoke-on-Trent doled out just one prescription for every 159 children.
Experts warned that some doctors and teachers are too keen to pin medical labels on what would previously have been branded poor discipline.
Dr Gwynedd Lloyd, an education researcher at the University of Edinburgh, said: 'You can't do a blood test to check whether you've got ADHD - it's diagnosed through a behavioural checklist.
'Getting out of your seat and running about is an example - half the kids in a school could qualify under that criterion.
'I know a lot of children have genuine difficulties, and some of these are biological, but most are social and cultural.'
Meanwhile teachers warned that funding pressures on schools could lead to an increase in prescribing in future.
Mental health programmes to help children through counselling and parental support were labour-intensive, they said.
Tim Bown, assistant head of Queen's Park Community School, North London, said: 'Ideally, schools would prefer to offer intensive one-to-one support, but if the resources are limited - which they usually are - then we're pushed into a choice between medication or exclusion.
'Hearing a student say that a drug "takes away his soul" doesn't sit comfortably with us as a school, but permanent exclusion doesn't either.'
He warned that therapists, counsellors and mentors could be sacrificed as schools fought to keep teachers.
Professor Frank Furedi, a sociology expert from Kent University and author of Therapy Culture, said: 'Parents are ambitious for their children and teachers are at a loss about how to manage classroom behaviour, so they medicalise it.'
Since ADHD was first recognised as a medical condition in the mid-1980s, debate has raged over the use of drugs to treat it.
Side-effects can include stunted growth and cardiovascular problems, as well as insomnia, lethargy and headaches.
But research also shows that youngsters treated with Ritalin and similar drugs do better in tests.