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Scapegoating ADHD — Because It’s Popular

Scapegoating ADHD -- Because It's Popular

As if people with a mental illness didn’t have enough to worry about.

One of the favorite media topics to write about is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a potentially serious mental illness that affects millions of Americans. It causes them to not be able to focus on everyday tasks that most of us have little trouble with. Many people with ADHD can’t sit still, interrupt others, and can’t wait their turn. Others find any kind of task that requires sustained attention simply impossible.

In the modern world, with so many devices and services competing for our attention, ADHD is at the heart of a perfect storm for those afflicted. While most of us juggle our attempts at multi-tasking seemingly well, those with untreated ADHD have a hard time just getting started.

So it makes me wonder: why are so many journalists quick to pick on ADHD?

It would be pure speculation as to why a journalist finds the topic of attention deficit disorder so sexy. Perhaps it’s because there are medications available to treat it (unlike another childhood disorder that’s on the rise too, autism). Perhaps it’s because it seems like the criteria for ADHD — which up until last year hadn’t changed for nearly two decades — are ever-changing and easier to meet.

Or perhaps it’s just because ADHD calls out to lazy journalists looking for a sensationalistic story to tell — “the drugging of our children” (nevermind that children have been taking all sorts of drugs for decades, from antidepressants to pain relievers).

Gina Pera, writing over at the New York Observer, is one expert who’s noted the uncalled-for sensationalism in a piece published by Esquire entitled “The Drugging of the American Boy:”

Never considered by the editors or the writer, Ryan D’Agostino: the story’s compounding of stigma already suffered by millions of children, teens, and adults with ADHD and the people who love them. Hammering on the themes of misdiagnosis and side effects, Esquire overblows these issues while delegitimizing the diagnosis itself and the medications often used to treat it.

Paul Raeburn sums up the real ADHD story quite brilliantly over at the Tracker blog from the Knight Science Journalism:

Some kids get medicine when they shouldn’t. And some kids don’t get medicine when they should.

The first of those is reported over and over and over again. The second is almost never mentioned.

Isn’t that interesting? That journalists — even from venerable institutions like The New York Times — can sometimes be pursuing their own biased agenda, too, with the reader none the wiser?

Raeburn sums up my view quite nicely too:

I’m urging reporters to look at ADHD more carefully and consider that perhaps the most important problem with children and mental illness is not overmedication, but the sad fact that many of them get no treatment whatsoever.

I would love to read the story in the NYT about this issue. About the issues of stigma and discrimination that still run rampant in American society.

About the shame many young adults feel for their illness. And how they are meant to feel guilty or someone looking to “game” the system in order to get needed treatment for their serious mental illness.

I would ask any journalist who thinks they’re being fair, unbiased and not discriminating against this mental illness — would you write these sames kinds of pieces about children diagnosed with leukemia? Or lupus? About how they are “drugged” in order to “normalize their symptoms?”

Ryan D’Agostino’s piece in Esquire is just another example of the low bar that’s been set for what passes for modern journalism today. It does little to illustrate the real problem in overdiagnosis — diagnostic criteria not being properly applied by clinicians, mostly ill-trained family docs and general practitioners — and says nothing about the other side of the coin of this problem: people who don’t get treatment for ADHD (because it was never properly diagnosed, they couldn’t afford it, or they failed to followup with treatment recommendations because of the stigma associated with the condition).

Perhaps some day a journalist will take a stab at an actual balanced piece about mental illness in children.


Read the full article at the New York Observer: How Esquire Got ADHD Wrong

Read the full article at the Tracker blog from the Knight Science Journalism: Esquire tracks “the drugging of the American boy.”

Scapegoating ADHD — Because It’s Popular

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Scapegoating ADHD — Because It’s Popular. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 23 Apr 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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