A popular medicine for hyperactive and distracted children causes a little-known side effect later in life: It can bar them from the military.
The use of Ritalin and similar drugs can be automatic grounds for rejection by the military, even if the hopeful soldier has improved and stopped taking the drugs.
Pentagon officials say past, regular use of Ritalin indicates a person who may not focus well enough to handle the growing demands of military classwork, and who may not perform at peak in combat.
As Ritalin use has doubled since 1987, scores of Ritalin users are being turned down by a smaller and choosier military. Thousands more can expect the same in the near future.
The military rejects people for hundreds of physical and mental problems that require medication, including ills such as diabetes, asthma, anemia, even acne. Regular use of the common anti-depressant Prozac is an automatic disqualification.
More and more doctors have prescribed Ritalin in the past decade for children with ADD. An estimated 2 million now have the disorder, which sometimes fades with age.
Their symptoms include fidgeting, squirming, forgetfulness, interrupting conversations, and sometimes theft. The cause is unknown but is thought to be a chemical imbalance. Ritalin calms the child.
It has become a staple in the nation’s schools. Nurses typically dispense it at noontime to children who have brought in their prescriptions.
But Pentagon policy calls for the automatic rejection of anyone taking medication for “academic skills defects,” such as ADD.
Even those who stopped taking Ritalin can be barred. The military policy is to disqualify anyone who took it for more than a year or after age 12, recruiters said.
Military doctors think that ADD children who need Ritalin past age 12 are more likely to have a relapse after they stop taking it, Pentagon officials said.
“They want the recruits to have a reasonable chance of success,” said Sgt. Skip Wiseman, a spokesman for the military medical command in Chicago. “You want a military force that is a healthy force.”