Leanne Bessner was an attractive, perky and popular fifteen-year-old girl from an average, stable, middle-class family. Among other activities, she played on her high school’s basketball team. She was also diagnosed with “Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder,” or ADHD. In August 2005, young Ms. Bessner was prescribed Concerta, also known as methylphenidate hci, a drug that, like Ritalin, is intended to calm children down and get them to focus. Two months later, on October 9, she committed suicide by hanging herself.

Sadly, Leanne Bessner has not been the only victim of this prescription drug. One of her classmates who was also taking Concerta attempted suicide as well. Frequent reports and now lawsuits have come out over the years, documenting suicidal tendencies and uncharacteristically aggressive behaviors among children and adolescents who have been “treated” with Concerta. And yet, goaded by a profit-driven health care system, doctors have continued to prescribe this and similar medications for a “disorder” that may indeed not even be a disorder. In fact, in recent years, prescriptions for Concerta (including its generic versions) have increased at an alarming rate. Between 2012 and 2013, sales of methylphenidate hci grew by two-thirds, totaling 2.4 billion prescriptions around the world. Today, over 80% of the world’s Concerta is prescribed in the U.S.

Methylphenidate hci has been highly profitable for the industry, which (as usual) explains why Big Pharma has allegedly been less than forthcoming about its potentially deadly side effects – which also include an elevated risk of heart attacks, breathing difficulties and spikes in blood pressure among other things. According to an FDA report issued in March 2006, 11 young people experienced fatal cardiac events while taking Ritalin and Concerta. According to Dr. Benedetto Vitello of the National Institute of Mental Health, many patients and their parents are led to believe that methylphenidate hci is a relatively harmless medication. Concerta and similar drugs have even been abused by teens who believe it will help them to focus on their studies and keep them alert. In an editorial published with the FDA report, Vitello wrote, “These drugs are being widely misused, and people need to know that they are not benign.”

Despite these dangers, there were over 3.1 million patients taking Concerta in 2013 – and more than half of them were children between the ages of 6 and 17. Janssen Pharmaceutica, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson and manufacturer of Concerta, stated that its own review of the drug in 2015 “did not identify evidence of a causal relationship between Concerta and suicide.” Surprisingly, Concerta is not a big money-maker for J&J. Sales for Concerta totaled $206 million in 2015, an increase of 42% over the previous year – but even that represents less than 3% of the company’s total sales. Nonetheless, increasing “diagnoses” of ADHD means the market for Concerta and similar drugs is growing, despite changing regulations and public perceptions (for a different perspective on ADHD, check out Attention Deficit Disorder: A Different Perception by author and former psychotherapist Thom Hartmann).

It’s the same issue that has been the cause of action in an almost endless stream of lawsuits. Big Pharma identifies an issue, labels it as a medical condition, then spends millions in order to convince the public that they have the treatment – for a price. Unfortunately, too often that price is paid for by the patients in the form damage to their health. In some cases, they even pay with their lives. But to Big Pharma, if that winds up costing a few hundred million dollars in judgments and fines.

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.