After spending nearly a decade in mental-illness research, and then raising a daughter with ADHD, my colleagues and friends often refer newly diagnosed families to me for heart-to-heart discussions.
I’ve been a nurse for a long time, and I’ve never seen a disease so poorly portrayed and misunderstood.
I’ve found these are the top 5 myths that stand in the way of ADHD patients:
1. Kids did not have ADHD before technology entered our lives.
ADHD was first described in a book by Dr. Alexander Crichton in 1798, and Dr. George Still is credited for naming it in 1902. It was formally recognized as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association in the 1960’s, when kids played outside for hours unattended, and many did not own a television. ADHD affected children in similar ways before telephones, televisions, computers or handheld devices.
2. Don’t we all have ADHD from time to time?
In short, we do not. To be diagnosed, a patient must show 6 or more symptoms of the illness in 2 or more life situations (i.e., school and home). These symptoms must persist for more than 6 months and cannot be caused by poor sleep, over-scheduling or poor parenting. These problems can mimic ADHD and must be considered when determining if a child has this illness.
Popular culture promotes ADHD as being an imagined disorder, but in truth, ADHD is a dysfunction of the chemicals in the brain that allow a person to concentrate on mundane tasks, organize one’s life and control impulses. It’s a far more complex illness than is portrayed in movies and television.
3. ADHD sufferers are not intelligent.
A study published in 2000 found ADHD patients have a normal range of IQs, not different from the average population. This study also found students with learning disabilities also have a normal range of IQs. Dispelling these joint myths are important because a majority of ADHD patients also have a learning disability.
While some academic failures in ADHD patients are due to troubles with attention, these patients also struggle with working memory and processing speed (the short term memory and time used while working a math problem or reading a paragraph, for example). These problems make it difficult to benchmark an ADHD student’s ability to learn.
4. ADHD medications are addictive.
When stimulants first came into wide usage for ADHD, rat studies were conducted using legal and illegal stimulants, including cocaine, and it was found that at high doses, they were addictive. Later studies in humans found the opposite: humans taking legal stimulants properly were less likely to become addicted to illegal stimulants. As recently as June 2017, a study has shown ADHD patients taking stimulants are less likely than their unmedicated ADHD peers to become addicted to their medications, illegal drugs or alcohol.
If patients crush, snort or take very large amounts of their ADHD stimulant medications, they can become addicted. If patients take these medications as prescribed, which includes a slow increase in dosage until the right amount is found, it is unlikely addiction will occur.
5. Kids are being over-diagnosed with ADHD.
Two worldwide studies found ADHD occurs in about 5.5 percent of children. The U.S. rates are slightly higher likely due to the lower stigma of mental illness and higher awareness of our population.
So why does it “feel” like kids are being over-diagnosed? Parents and teachers refer children to healthcare experts for diagnosis, and identify more children than actually have the illness. After problems such as difficulties at home or school, diet issues, etc., are taken into account, the actual U.S. diagnosis rate is between 7-11 percent.