Grandma’s little helper

I came across this ad in a 1966 issue of JAMA. This isn’t at all my area of research, but I thought the ad was quite evocative of the changes that have occurred in psychiatry and mental health care over the past thirty years.

Because we now think of Ritalin as a drug used to curb hyperactivity or to focus the abnormally dispersed attention of ADHD kids, it is striking to see that at this time it was being marketed as a kind of mild anti-depressant for housewives. Given that the drug is a stimulant, this makes sense, and as several accounts of the history of ADHD have pointed out, it was originally the effectiveness of stimulants like Benzedrine in calming hyperactive children (during the 1960s the diagnostic term often used was “hyperkinetic syndrome”) that clinicians found surprising and counterintuitive.

The ad also uses a vague pre-DSM-III diagnostic language: “chronic fatigue that depresses and mild depression that fatigues,”!

I also find striking that—unlike what you find in contemporary ads for anti-depressants—the woman in this ad doesn’t look particularly happy in the “after” shot. She’s just steadily peeling away, fulfilling her housewifely duties, looking almost as miserable as she does in the first image. It almost lends itself too easily to the critique made of Ritalin in connection to ADHD since the 90s: that it is used as a means of fostering self-disciplining subjects capable of fulfilling expected social roles.

Andy Lakoff
and Ilina Singh have both written accounts of the development of ADHD as a diagnostic entity, and Singh’s article in Science in Context gives us a nice interpretation of how this early marketing of Ritalin to women may have paved the way for its use with children:

“Ciba played an important role in the promotion of Ritalin within the medical industry through paid clinical research, advertising in physicians’ journals, and direct sales strategies…. It is more difficult to establish Ciba’s role in promoting acceptance of Ritalin within the domestic realm. It can be argued, speculatively, that Ritalin benefited from a shift in public understanding of mental illness, promoted in part by the creation and marketing of drugs for a nation of “worried well.” In particular, the success of anti-depressant drugs may have contributed to mothers’ acceptance of Ritalin for relatively common behavior problems in boys. The pharmaceutical industry and the medical profession probably targeted women for anti-depressant diagnoses and treatments… and women accustomed to drugs for their own relatively common problems may have been more likely to accept Ritalin for their sons’ problems,” (Singh 2002: 592-3)

For more on the history of ADHD see:

Lakoff, A. “Adaptive Will: The Evolution of Attention Deficit Disorder.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 36, 2 (2000): 149-169.

Singh, I. “Bad Boys, Good Mothers, and the “Miracle” of Ritalin.” Science in Context 15, 04 (2002): 577-603.

6 replies on “Grandma’s little helper”

This is really a great place to start a discussion of drug scripts and cultural/gendered scripts and their merger into a synergistic phenomena. This dual script – mother’s little helper – has a long history, actually starting with phenobarbitol (There is an older psychiatric ad asking doctors: “Is Mable Stable.” Ritalin becomes part of the story, then Miltown, followed by Valium (The Rolling Stones coined the Mother’s Little Helper during the Valium era); finally Prozac/SSRIs began filling this script, and somewhat ironically we are back to Ritalin. In fact, there is a nice little article describing the recycling of Ritalin into this script from ‘Time Magazine’ (2001) – see this link:,9171,97996,00.htmlIn this description mothers are now being recast as having been misdiagnosed/undiagnosed during their childhood (because of the long male bias for ADHD/Ritalin use with clinicians); because ADHD is now medically and culturally considered a genetic disorder (although this can be contested), mothers are now being diagnosed along with their sons and starting Ritalin treatment on the “same day.” In the recent past this was common with dads and sons, but mothers are the new subject/market.(In my ethnographic research I began to call these families with multiple psycho-pharmaceutical users – Pharmaceutical Families or “phamilies.”) Forthcoming: posting some older ads.

That’s a really nice narrative of this progression of pharma use in the domestic sphere. Also, regarding other older ads, several appear in a chapter of Jonathan Metzl’s Prozac on the Couch, which–thanks to the wonder of Google Books–can be seen almost in its entirely online < HREF=",M1/" REL="nofollow">here<>.

My name is Nathan Finch and i would like to show you my personal experience with Ritalin.I am 32 years old. Have been on Ritalin for 2 years now. This drug has saved my life. I have seen drastic differences between times in my life when I was taking it and when I was not. I failed out of one school and graduated top of my class in the next. Floated from job to job and then became very successful. I don’t like the way I feel when I am taking it (I’m boring — no personality) so, I time my doses to help me in the office or when I have to focus on mundane task’s at home like paying bills, taxes etc. and then go without it when I’m recreating.I have experienced some of these side effects-Initially some apatite suppression, insomnia and slight gitters. This was corrected by reducing my afternoon dose.I hope this information will be useful to others,Nathan Finch

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