Stay on your meds!

By Alan Koenigsberg, M.D.

So, summertime is right around the corner and camps, as well as many outdoor activities, are on the agenda. I vividly remember my oldest son going to his first Boy Scout camp in June many years ago, and I agreed to go along for the week to see what it was all about.

As one of the few adults who would be there all week, the only physician and being a psychiatrist, I was asked if I would be “medicine man” for the week for the boys who needed various medications that they took all year long. I agreed and it was an amazing experience for me.

First, I realized that many of the boys were indeed on various medications, mostly for anxiety or ADHD. I was very familiar with them and so it was a simple matter for me to help distribute them daily to the boys.

As the week went on, however, I noticed two boys seeming to behave erratically, a bit confused, easily distracted, impulsive, irritable and having a very tough time focusing on instructions when going canoeing and the like.

I asked them privately if this was the case at home and each boy said no, they took their Ritalin at home every day. When I asked them why they didn’t have the medicines at camp, they told me that their parents said they could use the “drug holiday” and wouldn’t need the medications, since they were at camp and not at school.

As a psychiatrist who treats people with ADHD, this was the first time I encountered this situation, as I recommend to all my patients to take their medications every day. I called the parents to verify this situation and they agreed.

The concerns I had were very simple and straightforward — these boys were going through withdrawal symptoms and couldn’t focus when they were hiking in new places, cooking, swimming, canoeing, rafting and engaging in physically demanding activities; they felt miserable.

From that time on, I talked to all the new parents before summer camp and advised them that all the boys coming to camp needed to continue to be on all the medications they took throughout the year. I explained in great detail why this was the case and many parents sincerely had no idea that stopping their medications could be seriously problematic for their boys.

Many parents think the medications are “toxic” and that “detoxifying” their children on weekends and holidays is beneficial. Not true.

They don’t think their children need to focus on the weekends when they are not in class. However, many of them are in high school and driving cars, taking part in sports and other activities that require serious attention.

Children and adults need to concentrate on the weekends, need to not go through withdrawals and should not restart full therapeutic doses when they’ve been off the meds for days.

Regarding the course of ADHD, many if not most children with ADHD continue on as adults with ADHD, but the hyperactivity tends to wane as they become more mature.

If the symptoms do continue, as with my adult patients, I have found that the same medications work just fine, don’t need much adjustment once we determine a proper, therapeutic dose and can continue to be taken for decades.

Obviously, as we continue in adulthood, other illnesses may befall us and careful attention is needed to ensure optimal care, as medications can interact. Also, the medicines we use to treat ADHD can sometimes cause problems such as high blood pressure in the elderly.

So go have fun with or without children during this summer, enjoy the time outdoors, stay hydrated, use sunscreen and stay on your meds!

Alan Koenigsberg, M.D., is a practicing psychiatrist and clinical professor of psychiatry at UTSW Medical School in Dallas.

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