Lee didn't want to see a mental health professional. She wasn't sure that the disorder existed. And she certainly didn't want to be in my office at that moment waiting for a diagnosis. Hadn't all of her neighbors told her that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) isn't real — especially in adults?
Only crazy people see psychologists or psychiatrists. All she needed was a little more self-control, and she'd be fine. This sounded great, except for the fact that Lee had been trying this approach for more than 30 years without success. She knew in her heart that something was wrong.
We estimate that as many as 85 percent of the adults who have ADHD have not been diagnosed. Many don't know enough about the disorder or its symptoms to seek an evaluation. But some, like Lee, may suspect they have it, but deny themselves the help they need for fear of the stigma that often follows a diagnosis.
Adults with ADHD too often find themselves in the unfortunate position of having to justify their search for help. Why would anyone need help for something that doesn't exist? Doesn't ADHD go away after childhood? These myths lead to feelings of shame, which stop people from seeking treatment, or even diagnosis. Avoiding diagnosis, however, may lead to years of feeling like a failure for being unable to change ADHD-related behavior. And the resulting low self-esteem can negatively affect future relationships and career confidence.
PEC Away at Stigma
Our challenge is to dispel the myths surrounding ADHD and its treatments through education. Patrick Corrigan, author of Don't Call Me Nuts: Coping with the Stigma of Mental Illness, has identified three elements in the fight for understanding: protest, educate, and contact.
When confronted with a misperception, respond with an informed comment ("I must disagree with what you have said. Are you aware that..."), or direct the individual to a support organization, such as the National Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA) or Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), for reading material and resources. Silence on your part may be construed as agreement, so speak up.
Start by educating yourself, your family, and those in your neighborhood. It is important for those close to you to understand the disorder. A few facts at your fingertips may be all that is needed to redirect a conversation.
On a national level, organizations like CHADD and ADDA provide information and resources to thousands of people each year. The year 2004 — over a decade ago, now — saw a milestone in ADHD outreach when the United States Senate named September 7 National Attention Deficit Disorder Awareness Day, recognizing ADHD as a major public health concern. It's only become more visible since then — and that's a good thing.
Personal contact is probably the most powerful way to change attitudes, perceptions, and beliefs. Tell people your story and put a face on the disorder. It's easier for a non-believer to disregard information he reads in a newspaper than a person sitting in front of him, sharing his own experience.
You don't have to be eloquent. You just have to speak from your experience and your heart. Never underestimate the power of one voice. Do it for yourself. Do it for Lee. Do it for your children and for those who will come after you.