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Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common neuro-behavioural conditions affecting children in South Africa, but a Stellenbosch University child psychiatrist has warned this illness was often misdiagnosed, resulting in over-medication of children.

Dr Anusha Lachman said over-prescription of stimulant medicines was becoming increasingly commonplace in the country with doctors prescribing such medication during exam times for children who didn’t necessarily have ADHD.

Not only did this practice give an unfair advantage to these children over their peers, but there was also a danger of drug dependence created to maintain their performance.

“This means that children don’t learn these skills needed to prepare and attempt exams which are necessary. Side-effects are also common if the drugs are used without proper indication.”October is ADHD awareness month.

She said increasingly practitioners were not comprehensively assessing for ADHD before making the diagnosis and prescribing medication. Although there was no single cause of ADHD, children with a family history or genetic predisposition were at a higher risk of developing the condition.

ADHD was also influenced by environmental and emotional risk factors like maternal smoking or alcohol use, anxiety and mental illness during pregnancy.

Lachman said a comprehensive assessment was needed before ADHD could be diagnosed in children, and different aspects such as poor nutrition, an iron deficiency, insufficient sleep, exposure to trauma, and poor routines were often blamed for the condition.

But more concerning for Lachman was when children with learning problems or displayed poor discipline and were deemed “naughty children” were often medicated under the “misperception that it is ADHD”.

She said ADHD could not be diagnosed with only one test.