Are stimulants overprescribed? Treatment of ADHD in four U.S. communities

J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 1999 Jul;38(7):797-804. doi: 10.1097/00004583-199907000-00008.


Objective: To address rising concerns about the possible overdiagnosis of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and overtreatment with stimulants. To date, almost no studies have examined ADHD in unbiased community-based studies, ascertaining both the prevalence of the diagnosis within nonreferred populations and the extent to which various treatments (i.e., stimulant medication, mental health treatments, and educational interventions) are used.

Method: As a part of the Methods for the Epidemiology of Child and Adolescent Mental Disorders (MECA) Study, the authors examined epidemiological survey data obtained from 1,285 children and their parents across 4 U.S. communities. Analyses examined the frequency of children's ADHD diagnosis, the extent to which medications were prescribed, as well as the provision of other services (e.g., psychosocial treatments, school-based educational interventions).

Results: Findings indicated that 5.1% of children met full DSM-III-RADHD criteria across the pooled sample. Only 12.5% of children meeting ADHD criteria had been treated with stimulants during the previous 12 months. Some children who had been prescribed stimulants did not meet full ADHD diagnostic criteria, but these children manifested high levels of ADHD symptoms, suggesting that the medication had been appropriately prescribed. Children with ADHD were generally more likely to receive mental health counseling and/or school-based interventions than medication.

Conclusions: Medication treatments are often not used in treating ADHD children identified in the community, suggesting the need for better education of parents, physicians, and mental health professionals about the effectiveness of these treatments. On the basis of these data it cannot be concluded that substantial "overtreatment" with stimulants is occurring across communities in general.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / drug therapy*
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / epidemiology*
  • Central Nervous System Stimulants / therapeutic use*
  • Child
  • Community Mental Health Services / statistics & numerical data
  • Connecticut / epidemiology
  • Demography
  • Drug Utilization / statistics & numerical data*
  • Education, Special / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Georgia / epidemiology
  • Health Services Misuse*
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Methylphenidate / therapeutic use
  • New York / epidemiology
  • Prevalence
  • Puerto Rico / epidemiology
  • Sampling Studies
  • United States / epidemiology


  • Central Nervous System Stimulants
  • Methylphenidate