We were in the middle of vriksasana, or tree pose, when a 15 year-old boy in my yoga class at Carl F. Bryan Juvenile Hall suddenly reddened and doubled over.
We’ll call him Harold.
“Are you alright?”
“I got overheated,” he explained, panting. I had him lie down with his hand on his heart. I helped Harold slow down his breathing and asked him if this had happened before.
“Yeah, a few times since I started the medication.”
“What are you taking?”
“Adderall.” He answered. He still felt faint so I sent him back to his room to lie down. When he left I turned impulsively to the other boys and said, “Why is Harold on Adderall?”
“Probably ADHD” offered another boy, my alpha at the time, we’ll call him Jimmy.
“That’s what I’m taking it for.” Jimmy was very bright, witty and a challenge to keep on task.
“Is anyone else taking Adderall?”
They all nodded. I asked them if they had side effects and they listed off some things: insomnia, rapid heart beat, sweating. I sat them down and walked them through a relaxation exercise and it was the first time in my 2.5 years of teaching at the hall that I thought to myself, this is pointless.
Adderall is categorized as a Schedule II amphetamine for it’s highly addictive risk, which puts it in the same category as cocaine. The United States and Canada are currently the only countries medicating children with amphetamines. Canada suspended the drug in 2005 when research showed that children with heart conditions were at risk for death. The FDA reviewed the research and approved a change on the label. Canada reclassified the drug in 2012 as Schedule I:
Appropriate use of the drug may produce dependency. Serious adverse drug reactions are known to occur or have a recognized potential to occur at normal therapeutic dosage levels. The medicinal ingredient is new, or is being used for a new indication that is not amenable to self-treatment, and the consequences of widespread use are not adequately established.
Carl F. Bryan is a model juvenile hall. Their program has a relatively high success rate for low repeat offenders. They offer art and yoga and minors get weekly visits from counselors or clinicians. There were times when enrollment was so low that I had no one to teach. The people who work there are genuine in their efforts; they believe in the power of routine, positive reinforcement and leadership. But they have to maneuver inside the parameters of a system controlled tightly by budgets and state oversight.
For many teens, a stint in a correctional facility sets the tone for the rest of their lives. I taught there long enough to see some of them turn 18 and now they are in jail. There are heavy locking, buzzing doors. Strip searches and lockdowns are standard. There are fights and tantrums and breakdowns and withdrawals.
Youth arrive at the hall often because they lack basic skills: impulse control, anger management, risk assessment and certainly the ability to concentrate. Many times a teen would come into my class unimpressed with everything. Yoga was just another thing they were being forced to do. I would walk them through it, encouraging them past lethargy. At the end when they lay down in final relaxation something amazing happened.
There was a change. A wonder. They marveled at how peaceful they felt. They reported sleeping better, gaining better balance, feeling stronger, happier.
I had one boy come into the room punching the air he was so angry with another resident. After class I asked him how he felt and he said, “I don’t want to hit him anymore.”
If something this simple works so well based on one hour a week, why are we altering their behavior with stimulants?
I asked the acting superintendent at the Juvenile Hall, Rod Kahele, about stimulants. He explained many of the residents have trouble concentrating. They are unable to follow directions. He described the immediate results when these drugs are administered: “Once the meds take effect…there’s less chaos, they are more calm, more docile.”
It started to dawn on me that as a yoga teacher I am really a side effects management specialist. I teach them how to turn down the volume on their monkey mind when they are artificially energized. I assumed that youth at the hall had already gone through all the other possible alternatives before prescribed pharmaceuticals. Actually, medication is often the first line of defense.
Lawrence Diller MD at UCSF writes in the Huffington post in 2011:
“Given the current CDC data, one can safely estimate (based on previously detailed distribution curves) that one of six 11-year-old white boys with medical insurance, currently takes a stimulant drug at least during the school week.”
Our children live in new era of over stimulation. The American child watches an average of 3-4 hours of TV a day. They are beset by fantastic images indistinguishable from reality. Our world is highly automated: burgers at the drive thru, cash at the ATM. Our food is so processed it is bankrupt of any nutritional value. We insist our children join more teams and learn more instruments so they appeal to college at increasingly younger ages.
A therapist who taught meditation in elementary schools said to me once: “Our minds are the most powerful tool we have and we don’t really know how to use them.”
One of my students, we’ll call him Blake, was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of two. He is now 18. “They put me on Adderall when I was 3″ he told me. He was also prescribed Ritalin, Focusyl, Strattera and a couple others I didn’t recognize.
“Did any of it help?” I asked.
“Focusyl helped me a little bit, but I just stopped taking everything because it made me mad.”
“Mad as in angry or mad as in crazy?”
“Both. I just didn’t want to be taking pills my whole life.”
“Do you feel like the people who were making those decisions about your medications were taking good care of you?”
“No. It just seemed like they just kept trying the next thing without even seeing if it helped me at all,” he said.
“Are you taking anything now?”
“No. I just manage it myself.”
“I play sports, I just keep moving. When I was a kid I rode my big wheel everywhere, then I got into BMX bikes, I played baseball, whatever. I played every sport.”
“So expending a lot of energy helps you concentrate?”
“Yeah, although sometimes I wear myself out.”
Barbara Smith MS, OTR writes on Livestrong:
“Natural alternatives to treat ADD and ADHD include improved nutrition, exercise, stress reduction and educational modifications—all of which produce no side effects and promote overall health.”
According to Smith, by cutting out preservatives and sugar, which is connected to hyperactivity and by increasing intake of food rich with Vitamin B6 and Iron, we can provide children with a longer attention span. Omega oils 3,6 and 9 in fish support healthy brain function.
Meredith Benson is a homeopath in Grass Valley, Ca. Homeopathy is plant-based medicine that addresses the whole picture of physical and behavioral symptoms. Families often come to her to take their children off stimulants like Adderall or Ritalin. She sees the side effects of prescription stimulants: loss of appetite, malaise, anxiety, and insomnia. She described ADHD:
“It’s a misattunement in the body. Every case is different: hyper, dreamy, that’s why everyone having the same medication is crazy to me. ADD and ADHD are just symptoms of a larger imbalance that is not being addressed. The drugs cover up the misattunement and create dependence. So they end up taking the drugs forever.”
Some children can take up to a year to improve but most take a few months. When Benson finds the right remedy it’s like a sea change in the child’s personality. Their attention span lengthens, they become calm and alert. Homeopathy has no side significant effects: it either has no effect or it works. When I asked her why this approach was not more widely used or even studied, she answered:
“When someone comes to see me about these conditions, they are done in a few months, where a Ritalin prescription goes on indefinitely. Insurance companies and Big Pharma incentivize the drugs because alternative medicine is out of pocket.”
I dare anyone to make the economic argument that it is cheaper to just give our young people pills. The cost of long term care for people who cannot function or who develop more severe conditions as they age, must be staggering. Of course, we don’t know because there have been no studies on the long-term effects of Adderall. This is the one place where there should be no debate about spending money: our children. Our system should be correcting the imbalance, devising and experimenting with healthy methods that yield permanent results.
This moment in our history, when our healthcare system is undergoing major overhaul, we can decide, as a culture, as a society, to offer our children more than a lifetime of overstimulation and drug dependence. This is the moment, in the wake of Sandy Hook and other atrocities where we need to redouble our efforts and reexamine our mental health practices.
Imagine a medical system that supported the body’s self-healing potential, addressing these conditions with basic nutrition, exercise and self-awareness. Are we brave enough to offer our children this kind of healing?
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Assistant Editor: Jennifer Moore/ Editor: Rachel Nussbaum