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Do you have trouble wrapping up the final details of a project, once the challenging parts have been done? When you have a task that requires a lot of thought, do you often avoid or delay getting started?

These questions come from a widely circulated online quiz called "Could you have ADHD?" I took it and the answer, no surprise, was "possibly." But not to worry. There's a pill for that!

Once considered a treatment for hyperactive children who can't sit still, ADHD drugs have found a new market: you and me. About 2.6 million American adults now have prescriptions for ADHD, up by half in the past few years. Young adults, for example, have discovered that the drugs can help them stay up all night cramming. The biggest increase in prescriptions – up 85 per cent – was among women ages 26-34. Maybe it's all that multitasking they have to do. Or maybe it's the fact that Adderall and other ADHD medications contain a honking dose of amphetamines, which are great for losing weight.

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The old theory was that kids with ADHD would eventually grow out of it. The new theory – enthusiastically promoted by Big Pharma – is that they won't. Pharmaceutical companies are masters at marketing to the anxieties of the age. Our cultural ideals are to be focused, high-performing and thin. But our culture makes us distracted, insecure and fat. These drugs offer a treatment for the common anxieties of modern life.

For children with behavioural issues, ADHD drugs are increasingly seen as essential to success – not just here in North America, but globally. As Stephen P. Hinshaw and Richard M. Scheffler, authors of the new book The ADHD Explosion, wrote in The Wall Street Journal: "Growing awareness of ADHD combined with increasing pressure on children to achieve academically – in countries like China, India, South Korea and Saudi Arabia – has led to surging numbers of diagnoses and prescriptions worldwide." The global market for these drugs may soon reach $14-billion a year, they say.

In the United States, an astonishing 11 per cent of school-aged children – 6.4 million in all – have received an ADHD diagnosis, according to U.S. government data. Among high-school students, it's 15 per cent. Are they being overdiagnosed? Plenty of doctors and advocates say that they're not, and that even if some are being unnecessarily treated, there's no harm done. According to advocacy groups (many of which are heavily funded by drug companies), ADHD remains substantially undertreated.

But some of the earliest ADHD pioneers feel they've created a monster. One is Dr. Keith Connors, a psychologist who did much to destigmatize the disorder. Last fall, he told group of fellow specialists that the rising rates of diagnosis were "a national disaster of dangerous proportions." He told The New York Times: "This is a concoction to justify the giving out of medication at unprecedented and unjustifiable levels."

These arguments are unlikely to dissuade anxious parents, who often report remarkable transformations in their distracted and unhappy children. "I'm sure it's over-diagnosed, but for my daughter, who zones out in school, going from a 2.5 GPA to a 3.85 … AND her leap in self esteem is proof enough in her case," one father wrote in the Times's online comments.

Every age has its self-medication of choice, I guess. We used to favour Valium and pot. But today, among the striving middle class, the stoner drugs are out of fashion. Today, we want something that will give us that lean, mean performance edge and allow us to pretend we can do six things at once. In the age of distraction, nothing fits the bill like speed.

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