“Stigma thrives in silence but tends to fade when people are open and we can put a face to a condition or situation,” according to Ari Tuckman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and author of Understand Your Brain, Get More Done: The ADHD Executive Functions Workbook. The good news is that people are speaking up, and the stigma surrounding attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is shrinking.
It’s also decreasing thanks to well-designed studies, said Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D, a psychotherapist and author of several books on ADHD, including Adult ADD: A Guide for the Newly Diagnosed. “Research is showing more and more that ADHD is a true biological [and] genetic disorder,” she said.
The bad news is that stigma and stereotypes still persist. Psychotherapist Terry Matlen, ACSW, along with other ADHD experts and advocates wrote a piece on ADHD myths almost 10 years ago. Sadly, she said, the misconceptions today are still the same.
For instance, people continue to view ADHD as a personality trait or a weakness of character, according to Matlen, also author of Survival Tips for Women with ADHD and founder and director of www.ADDconsults.com.
ADHD behaviors still get attributed to poor parenting. “The general thinking is often that the parent is not strict enough and the child is in control of the situation,” Matlen said. But a child with ADHD isn’t disobedient on purpose; they have a biologically based disorder that disrupts self-regulation. And simply applying more discipline — without treating the ADHD — doesn’t work.
Adults with ADHD are misperceived as “drug-seeking,” seeking the diagnosis in order to supposedly get their hands on stimulants. As Matlen corrected, many adults with ADHD actually forget to take their medication.
Some also believe that people with attention deficit disorder are simply lazy or haven’t tried hard enough. “However, we have even more proof today that ADHD is a result of lower levels of neurotransmitters and possible structural differences in the brain,” Sarkis said.
These stereotypes and stigma can have devastating consequences. Parents whose kids may have ADHD are afraid to get them evaluated and treated, Matlen said. Adults worry that disclosing their diagnosis will affect their jobs or push people away, she said. Both kids and adults also can feel alone and isolated, Tuckman said.
Individuals with untreated ADHD may lead unhealthy and unfulfilled lives, which can lead to depression and substance abuse, Matlen said. They may not finish school or choose jobs that suit them. Studies have even linked untreated ADHD to risky and antisocial behaviors. (Here’s a review about criminality and untreated ADHD.)
Matlen believes that several sources are to blame for the misinformation. “First, there are strong, vocal religious [or] political groups that are anti-psychiatry, anti-meds and they have been successful to some degree in brainwashing people, primarily through the media,” she said.
Suggesting that attention deficit disorder can be controlled or corrected with willpower is “similar to asking a person with severe myopia (nearsightedness) to try harder to see the street sign without his glasses on,” she said. Not only is it ineffective, but also it’s absurd.
The excess media attention on stimulant abuse also plays a role. “There is this stigma still attached to the idea that people with ADD are abusing or taking ‘dangerous’ medications,” Matlen said. “Yet, when used as directed, these medications are quite safe.”
How to Fight ADHD Stigma
Remember that you do have a voice in helping to fight stigma. According to the experts, these are just some of the ways you can use your voice.
1. Get educated.
“Read articles, books and visit websites to learn more about [ADHD],” Matlen said.
2. Get involved.
As Sarkis said, “We are stronger when we band together.”
Matlen agreed: “You have a voice and you have tremendous power, especially when you pair up with others who are willing to speak out and educate those who are spewing misinformation out to the world.”
Also, if you’re an employer, consider hiring people with ADHD. According to Matlen, “Their traits can often be a huge asset in the workplace: thinking out of the box, spontaneity, sense of humor, sensitivity, and often a real wish to please and succeed.”
3. Speak up.
Correct others when they make misinformed comments about ADHD. “We are obligated to speak out against injustice or stigma, especially for those that cannot speak for themselves — children who are impacted by being treated unfairly or unjustly,” Sarkis said.
(Remember that you don’t have to disclose your diagnosis in order to challenge negative comments, Tuckman said.)
Use your voice to speak out against the media, Sarkis said. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a “Stigma Busters” program that reports on and challenges inaccurate and demeaning portrayals of mental illness in the media.
4. Consider the source.
When you read something negative about ADHD, always check the source. As Matlen said, “Is it someone who has a mindset that is anti-psychiatry or anti-meds? Is it someone who is woefully misinformed about brain functioning, neurology and mental health? Is there an agenda there?”