Don’t believe everything you think!
October is ADHD Awareness Month. But if you’ve been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or strongly suspect you or your child has it, or care about someone else who has it, any time of the year is the right time to pay attention to the three most popular—and dangerous—myths about this extraordinarily prevalent disorder. They’re dangerous because they can dissuade people from getting the treatment they need, while also depleting self-esteem, which when ADHD is present, is already likely to be precarious.
So here they are—and let’s understand and abandon them, once and for all:
1. It doesn’t exist
More than any other mental or for that matter physical disorder, ADHD is often portrayed as a handy excuse for rude children, lazy parents, and pill-poppers. Granted, ADHD is often over-diagnosed, just as it is also often not diagnosed when it should be. In the case of an authentic diagnosis, however, ADHD is a strongly genetic neurobiological condition that is strongly linked to all sorts of serious impairments, from anxiety, depression, and drug addiction to higher rates of academic and professional failures, traffic accidents, and divorces. People who struggle with serious distraction deserve empathy and support, not suspicion and sarcasm.
2. It’s just for kids
ADHD certainly does affect a lot of American children. At last count, 6.4 million youth, approximately one in nine children from age 4 to 17, have received a diagnosis. Yet the fastest-growing rates of increase in diagnoses are now among seriously distracted adults, the majority of whom have yet to be identified or treated. Researchers estimate that roughly half of those affected with ADHD continue to struggle into adulthood, meaning that close to 10 million adults are eligible for diagnosis. Even as millions of these adults remain untreated, the pharmaceutical firm Shire recently reported that adults surpassed children in taking medication for the disorder, accounting for some 53 percent of prescriptions.
3. Medication solves the problem
There is no silver bullet for ADHD. The idea that stimulant medications might solve the problem was supported by a huge federal study, published in 1999, which found that the pills appeared to be the best single solution for reducing symptoms. Less publicized was the fact that a combination of medication with behavior therapy worked best of all to promote social and academic skills. And another relatively little-noticed development was follow-up research several years later, when the participants were in their twenties, which showed that the initial medication advantage had significantly diminished.
Human error helps explain that problem: Most kids simply won’t take the pills indefinitely. That’s only partly because the medications often come with side-effects that can include insomnia, loss of appetite, and irritability. Researchers have found that people of all ages typically have trouble sticking with all sorts of chronic medication, even for cancer.
At the same time, there’s truth in the familiar adage that pills don’t teach skills. There’s simply no avoiding the hard work of learning strategies to curb impulsivity and train one’s focus. And of course that’s just part of the job. Managing ADHD can take a lifetime of learning, including working harder than most mortals on self-awareness and relationships and making sure to cultivate good habits to fight stress, such as regular exercise. The good news is that such work often pays off—at which point you can start to enjoy all the extra energy, spontaneity, and, often, exceptional creativity that can accompany this vexingly double-edged disorder.