Last year, Sinan Sonmezler of Istanbul refused to keep going to school. His eighth-grade classmates called him “weird” and “stupid,” and his teachers rebuked him for his tendency to stare out the window during class. The school director told his parents he was “lazy.”
Sinan has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, a condition still little understood in many parts of the world.
“He no longer believes he can achieve anything, and has quit trying,” said Sinan’s father, Umit Sonmezler, a mechanical engineer.
While global diagnoses of A.D.H.D. are on the rise, public understanding of the disorder has not kept pace. Debates about the validity of the diagnosis and the drugs used to treat it — the same that have long polarized Americans — are now playing out from Northern and Eastern Europe to the Middle East and South America.
Data from various nations tell a story of rapid change. In Germany, A.D.H.D. diagnosis rates rose 381 percent from 1989 to 2001. In the United Kingdom, prescriptions for A.D.H.D. medications rose by more than 50 percent in five years to 657,000 in 2012, up from 420,000 in 2007. Consumption of A.D.H.D. medications doubled in Israel from 2005 to 2012.
The surge in use of the medications has prompted skepticism that pharmaceutical firms, chasing profits in an $11 billion international market for A.D.H.D. drugs, are driving the global increase in diagnoses. In 2007, countries outside the United States accounted for only 17 percent of the world’s use of Ritalin. By 2012, that number had grown to 34 percent.
“We need to be worried about the industry pressures, and we need to be worried about overdiagnosis, for sure,” said Luis Rohde, a professor of child psychiatry at Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, and president of the World Federation of A.D.H.D.
“But we also need to see the suffering of these families, and of children who are not being able to grow up healthy without the diagnosis.”
For parents of children struggling with attention problems, the most urgent issue is that their children aren’t getting the medical, social or educational support that they need.
“How can they be so cruel?” asked Olga Elizabet Abregu on the Facebook page of TDAH Argentina, an A.D.H.D. support group. Ms. Abregu is a mother in San Miguel de Tucumán, Argentina, and she was lamenting the fact that none of her son Santino’s friends had shown up for his birthday party.
Santino, 8, has been given a diagnosis of A.D.H.D. His mother said one of his teachers later told her that other parents had forbidden their children to play with him.