Overcoming the ADHD Stigma

An expert psychologist shares his secrets for fighting ADD ADHD stereotyping in children and adults.

Overcoming the ADD/ADHD Stigma ADDitude Magazine

The burden of ADD stigmatization falls more heavily on girls and young women.

Stephen Hinshaw, Ph.D., author of ~The Mark of Shame~

There’s nothing shameful about having attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD) — or at least there shouldn’t be. But in our society, people who have the disorder are seen as somehow “defective,” despite ample evidence suggesting that ADDers can be just as competent, personable, and skilled as “normal” people.

Can this stigma be avoided? How can children and adults with ADHD avoid being the victims of ridicule, contempt, or discrimination? ADDitude’s Carl Sherman, Ph.D., posed these and other questions to Stephen Hinshaw, Ph.D., the author of The Mark of Shame: Stigma of Mental Illness and an Agenda for Change (Oxford). Dr. Hinshaw, who chairs the psychology department at the University of California, Berkeley, has done pioneering research on ADHD and the ways it affects children and adolescents.

Why does ADHD carry a stigma?

Despite evidence to the contrary, many people still don’t believe that ADHD is a bona fide medical condition. They see it as an excuse for sloppiness or laziness. The fact that ADHD symptoms appear to come and go, depending on the situation, only feeds the doubters’ contempt. They say, or think, things like, “Why can’t you pull it together? You’re fine with certain friends — how come you can’t sit down and do your homework?”

Another factor is the widespread negative feeling about the use of psychiatric drugs. In recent years, there’s been a surge in the number of people taking medication for ADHD. Some wonder if this increase is justified.

Finally, the fact that ADHD can undermine academic performance worsens the stigma. Our society seems to think, “If your grades are poor, you’re not worth much.” This is especially true if the cause of poor performance is hidden, as it is with ADHD.

What harm does ADHD stigmatization cause?

There are obvious things, like social problems and workplace discrimination. But the greatest harm often comes from self-stigmatization — that is, when people with ADHD internalize negative stereotypes.

In the course of my research, I’ve gotten to know hundreds of children who have ADHD, and I’ve heard many say things like, “I just can’t make it,” or “I’m just not cut out for school.” The stigma has so poisoned their motivation that they’ve given up even trying to be successful.

The flip side of self-stigmatization is denial. You consider the stereotypes of ADHD and think, “That’s not me.” You want nothing to do with such a shameful identity.

People with ADHD tend to have trouble seeing themselves realistically, and the desire to avoid discrimination makes it even harder. For example, if you believe that needing medication proves there’s something wrong with you, then not taking your medication “proves” there is nothing wrong with you.

Who is affected most by stigmatization?

Stigmatization can be difficult for anyone who has ADHD, but the burden falls more heavily on girls and young women. People continue to think of ADHD as an exclusively male problem. According to this stereotype, if a girl exhibits common ADHD traits, there must really be something wrong with her.

Something similar may be operating with adults. Since ADHD is commonly thought of as a childhood disorder, adults who have it, or claim to have it, come under suspicion. The thinking seems to be, “Either you made it up to compensate for the failures in your life, or there’s something very wrong with you.”

What should you do if you hear a hurtful comment about ADHD?

A firm, but gentle, discussion with the person making the remark goes a long way toward raising awareness.

“I have ADHD,” you might say, “and it’s just as real as other medical conditions.” Or you might say, “I work hard, and I bet that you have no idea how demoralizing it is to hear a comment like that.”

This article comes from the April/May 2007 issue of ADDitude.

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