Two old stories by a curious but telling coincidence made it into the top news last week. One re-ignited the ADHD isn’t bad parenting or poor diet, it’s an illness (and genetic to boot) debate; the other reminded us just how determined Big Pharma can be when it comes, as they say in financial circles, to helping us grow our GDP. The theme which unites these two stories is medicalisation – that tendency to transform the vagaries of human nature into ‘real’ illnesses.
A Professor Thapar from the Land of the Leeks blew the genetic trumpet for ADHD. A number (as it turned out, an embarrassing small number) of kiddos with ADHD had a higher proportion of scrambled genes compared to non-ADHD kids, suggesting that ‘ADHD is not purely a social construct’. No longer is Morgan-Jones Minor an A-hole the size of Australia, oh no boyo, Morgan-Jones Minor has an illness, and a genetic one to boot. The weakness in this line of argument, given that most of the ADHD kids didn’t have the genetic defect, was promptly pointed out by the well known couch torpedo Oliver James, who helpfully added it was all a load of outrageous hype, aimed at boosting sales of anti-ADHD drugs.
Meanwhile, a Ray Moynihan, a learned hack from the Antipodes, has been busy showing how Big Pharma invents illness in the pursuit of profit. Ever since Viagra put the Big back into Ben, not to mention billions of dollars into drug company coffers, the drug industry has been beavering away hyping female sexual dysfunction (FSD), a female equivalent to erectile dysfunction, to create a vast new pool of patient need. And the industry, Moynihan notes coyly, ‘shows no signs of abandoning plans to meet the need it has helped to manufacture’.
Neither ADHD nor FSD have yet graduated as mature diseases; both inhabit the grey territory of disorder and dysfunction. At one end of the spectrum there are no doubt real patients with real diseases (even if we have yet to define the diagnosis and pathology) who need real medical treatment, whilst at the other end we have exaggeration, hype and the transformation – medicalisation – of that which is properly ordinary into pseudo-illness.
By all means, make it atomic for me – and equally less atomic for Morgan-Jones Minor. But do us a favour – don’t make out we are ill when we are not.