The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Prescription for Trouble

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Pharmaceutical companies in the United States and Canada have profited in recent years from sharply increased demand in both countries for methylphenidate, a drug commonly prescribed for the treatment of attention-deficit disorder. The evidence continues to mount indicating that family disintegration has helped create the boom market for this drug. The latest addition to that evidence comes from sociologist Lisa A. Strohschein, of the University of Alberta, who probes the relationship between parental divorce and methylphenidate.

Strohschein begins her research acknowledging earlier studies that have established that “living in a household without 2 biological parents is a risk factor for methylphenidate use.” But because the earlier authors have looked simply at family structure, their findings do not fully illuminate the consequences of parental divorce—as opposed to illegitimacy or parental death. To clarify those consequences, Strohschein parses data collected through a national longitudinal survey between 1994 and 2000. A clear linkage between parental divorce and methylphenidate use emerges in these data: while methylphenidate use stood at only “3.3% among those [children] whose parents remained together” during the study period, such use was a much-higher “6.1% among those [children] whose parents divorced during this period.”

Strohschein concedes that she lacks definitive proof of a causal link between parental divorce and methylphenidate use; however, she plausibly scrutinizes “losing a parent through divorce” as a “stressful event that may challenge child-coping processes.” The data may thus indicate the effects of “stress . . . [that] elevated child behavior problems to a point that necessitated methylphenidate use.” Even when remarriage follows parental divorce, “elevated rates of methylphenidate use among children in step-parent households may represent the persisting mental health consequences of [the] earlier parental divorce.” Among children whose divorced mothers never remarry, on the other hand, elevated levels of methylphenidate use may reflect “the link between poverty and child mental health problems.”

Many readers may be alarmed by the fact that parental divorce predicts an almost two-fold increase in children’s methylphenidate use. The pharmacological impact of parental divorce, however, may be even worse than this study indicates. Strohschein notes that parents undergoing a “high-conflict divorce” are probably more likely to drop out of a study such as this than are parents working through “less contentious” breakups. Consequently, the sobering findings she delivers constitute “a conservative estimate of the effects of parental divorce on methylphenidate use.”

(Lisa A. Strohschein, “Prevalence of Methylphenidate Use Among Canadian Children Following Parental Divorce,” CMAJ: Canadian Medical Association Journal 176 [2007]: 1711–14.)