ADHD Myths & Facts

Coping With the Stigma of ADHD

Tired of battling other people’s opinions about ADHD? Learn how adults with the condition and parents of children with ADHD can ignore the stigma, and also discover the best time to tell people about your diagnosis.

A depressed male Caucasian teen with his head in his folded arms and outlines of his parents hands on his back
A depressed male Caucasian teen with his head in his folded arms and outlines of his parents hands on his back

There’s nothing shameful about having attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) — or at least there shouldn’t be. But in our society, people who have the disorder are somehow seen as “defective,” which is clearly untrue.

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 (#CommissionsEarned) (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 ADHD medication. 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.

[Click to Download: Your Free Guide to Debunking Annoying ADHD Myths]

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 corrupted 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.

[Free Webinar Replay: From Shame and Stigma to Pride and Truth: It’s Time to Celebrate ADHD Differences]

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.”

What else can people with ADHD do to counteract the effects of stereotyping?

The more aware you are of stereotyping, the easier it is to recognize when it is affecting you.

Of course, it’s also important to recognize that negative feedback about oneself is occasionally valid — and valuable. If you believe that all criticism leveled at you is the result of stereotyping, you’ll be less motivated to seek appropriate treatment.

Taking positive action is another way to avoid the negative effects of stereotyping. Joining others in the struggle to do away with discrimination is empowering. So, when you encounter biased, belittling portrayals of people with ADHD in the media, write a letter to the people responsible for those portrayals.

If you’re not already involved with advocacy groups, like CHADD and ADDA, consider getting involved. Or contact your elected representatives to ask them to consider needed policy changes, such as parity. This means putting insurance coverage for mental health problems, like ADHD, on an equal footing with coverage for physical illnesses.

What can parents do to help protect their children with ADHD?

If you’re the parent of a child with ADHD, make sure that he or she understands what that means. ADHD should never be used as an excuse, but it probably explains why your child has trouble doing certain things, and why she or he might have to work a little harder than other kids to get the same results.

Make sure your child’s school understands that ADHD is a legitimate disorder — and that it may be legally obligated to provide accommodations.

How or when should you reveal a diagnosis of ADHD?

It’s a dilemma. If you conceal the fact that you have ADHD, you avoid the ADHD label and the discrimination that can lead to. However, you risk a kind of indirect discrimination. People who notice you being disorganized, impulsive, or forgetful might assume that you are simply rude or lazy.

When is the right time to talk to your boss about your ADHD? When to tell a new friend? It’s a judgment call, and timing is crucial. If your employer has a reputation of being good about providing accommodations, for example, you might broach the subject. Otherwise, it might be better to keep it quiet, at least until you get established in your job. Advice from a therapist or consultant can be helpful.

There’s no need to tell everyone that you or a loved one has ADHD. But if you feel you shouldn’t tell anyone, you’re wasting energy — and reducing the likelihood that you will get treatment.

Secrecy fuels feelings of shame. Better to seek out people and places that make secrecy unnecessary, and open up.

[Read This Next: Life Is Too Short for Shame]

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14 Comments & Reviews

  1. I never felt better the day I was diagnosed, I never felt worse when a doctor, a dermatologist at that challenged my diagnosis! It was so belittling, I was ashamed I let it go. The next month, he did it again, that time I told him a specialist like himself in their field diagnosed me with this condition and I would not let him change it, and when I see that specialist I will not let him diagnosis my skin. He made the accusation my skin condition had to do with my use of ADHD drug, I told him it was the fact it took too long to find accurate diagnosis! He said all people he sees that CLAIM to have ADHD seem to have skin problems because of the drugs prescribed. He was very very negative! He convinced my husband I was causing my skin problems myself! I fired him! ❤️

  2. I’m fairly open about it, but I’ll admit that it seems as though it’s become so common I do worry people will think I’m using it as an excuse. Even I have found myself thinking, “everyone has it,” so what makes me any different?

    But I also know a lot of people who don’t have it, including my husband and a lot of my friends. What I see is how much more able they are to focus and complete tasks. They seem to have more energy, too. I can have a lot of energy for awhile, and then be totally drained.

    I feel as though I’ve gotten better with age, and I’m glad I no longer have the pressure of dealing with school and a job. Those were some awfully frustrating times for me.

  3. Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre did a study measuring the brain volumes of over 3,200 people with ADHD. Their findings confirm that people with ADHD have differences in their brain structure which suggests that ADHD is a disorder of the brain. Hopefully this study will help to reduce the stigma that ADHD is just a label for difficult children or poor behavior caused by lack of good parenting. Resource: Birth Defect Research for Children –

  4. When I was a kid, the diagnosis of ADHD may not have existed. At any rate, my parents and teachers seem not to have known. I now know I have ADHD-inattentive type, or what has been called ADD. Back then I was called lazy, irresponsible, doesn’t try, doesn’t care. Because they were the adults, and they knew stuff, I thought they knew what they were talking about, and that it was true. I would try not to be those things, but it would keep happening again, regardless.
    My only choice, it seemed, was to cover it up. I denied it, even to myself, and had excuses that seemed to explain a failure here or there.
    I made straight F’s in math in my first 8 years of school. I can still remember looking at a page of addition problems, 3 or 4 digits wide, and 3 or 4 rows deep. It felt like a slave working in the salt mines, and I would do several and groan at how many more there were, and never finish. In the spring there would be achievement tests, and I would score 98th or 99th centile on most things, and 75th centile in math. That wasn’t as good, but it still meant I did better than 75 in a hundred kids who took the test.

    There would be the usual talk from the teacher, about how I have ability and could do much better if I tried, and I took that as a high compliment, but it didn’t change anything. At the end of the year they would pass me on.

    In high school, there was algebra, and then plane geometry, which were like a puzzle, and I did well at those, though I still had a problem of not getting my daily work finished. In college I took college algebra, trigonometry, calculus and analytic geometry, and made average grades at that, until I changed my studies toward social sciences.
    I eventually got a master’s degree in counseling, and knew of the diagnosis of ADHD, but for some reason never realized that applied to me. I had diagnosed a lot of other people for several years, until I had finished assessing one client, and realized, “I do that. And I do that. And I do that, too.”
    By that time I had high blood pressure, and couldn’t take most of the medications. Strattera, though expensive, works without affecting my blood pressure much, and it sometimes helps me in therapy to say, “I have that, too,” and I believe that helps a client to know he can do well with his disability, which is treatable.

  5. Reading these stories helps me and at the same time I have a tornado of Rage firing inside of me. All things being equal I want to grab my Louisville slugger Mickey Mantle bat and whack these ignorant people in the head. Than ask them is that real. Or are u just being a baby laying on the floor with a lump on your head cause u don’t want to work😁 I’m better now just writing that piece and knowing I’m not alone👌🏽

  6. I do not care what anyone else thinks of ADHD or me. I am not ashamed AT ALL that I have it and take medication. Everyone has to take medication for something at some point. I think you should be ashamed if you don’t take medication if you know it will help you – Life is too short. The only caveat to this if an employer or someone who has influence over something major in my life that I have no control over is discriminating than I would care, just like anything else people can be discriminated against for. This is different that your average person – don’t care one bit what they think. I’m sure I can find something to judge them for too.

  7. Some professions like medicine or teaching may tolerate and employ or continue to employ ADD or ADHD victims.

    I have worked as an engineer in the for-profit electronics industry for 25+ years. They will provide a larger cubicle for someone in a wheelchair but will not tolerate anyone who cannot do the job.

    I have the image of a mildly eccentric nerd but I have an excellent reputation as the go-to guy for certain product lines. I cannot afford to have my public image trashed in a whispering campaign. So, I just have to man up and be a man. I’d rather endure the criticisms and insults rather than get fired! Get real: nothing is worse that struggling to exist on a meager unemployment check! You’ll still have ADD or ADHD but you’ll be broke and that will intensify a comorbid dose of depression, making you wish that you never outed yourself.

    I once had an HR manager tell me that he can fire or refuse to hire anyone he wants and make it all sound legit. Suppose that you have incurable gonorrhea. Would you wear a t-shirt that proclaims : “I have gonorrhea!” Uh, I didn’t think so, so don’t be reckless or stupid. In my humble opinion I think that going public about ADD or ADHD is a HUGE mistake.

    If you need help, get help. I am working with a mental health professional and I am an avid reader of ADDitude. I have to watch my back but I survive and I still have a good-paying job. I’m no Rosa Parks; I just try to apply common sense.

  8. Here’s an addendum to my post above, in case my points were missed.

    Q. “What Should You Do if You Hear a Hurtful Comment about ADHD?”
    A. We can make a stronger statement than the answer given in this article: Keep your mouth shut! To argue the point will reveal your condition and put your job in danger. Besides, do you seriously think that you can change someone else’s mind? And why should you care what someone else thinks?

    Q. “When Should You Reveal Your Diagnosis of ADHD?
    A. NEVER! Even criminal suspects under arrest stay silent unless they are totally stupid! Once you tell one person, it’s no longer a secret. There is no law that requires you to reveal this potentially career-ending condition. In social settings your jealous peers can weaponize this information and you’ll be sorry! You have the same 5th Amendment protection against self-incrimination, the same Miranda rights as any gangbanger in handcuffs, plus HIPAA.

    My recommendations again,
    A. If you need help, get help and follow the treatment plan.
    B. Read ADDitude for its sensitive moral support and guidance (except for any ill-advised suggestions that you out yourself).

  9. @ADDSecret: if we’re not Rosa Parks, then who will be? We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. If not for Ms Parks and people like her, it’d still be acceptable—even perfectly legal!—to deny opportunities to our fellow citizens on account of race. The fact is that nobody in this country except wealthy, neurotypical white males was given some social status at birth. The rest of us have to fight for the “privilege” of nothing more than equal opportunity. The longer we stay silent the more we perpetuate the problem.

  10. Re: Rosa Parks, she had no dependents, was self-employed and didn’t even have a car payment (that’s why she rode the bus). How about the rest of you in our studio audience? Do you have $1M in your retirement nest egg? A mortgage or rent due? Uh-huh. Kids in college?

    There is a well-defined line between high-minded principle and inspired stupidity and some people cannot discern the difference. For those who have a martyr complex, you will sacrifice your well-being needlessly. I know what I’m talking about and it just might be instructional to re-read my posts above.

    I had a successful 40 year + career as an engineer who always worked at for-profit corporations and these dudes do not tolerate incompetence, missed deadlines or mealy-mouthed excuses about mental illness. I had the reputation of a somewhat eccentric nerd, but one who had some valuable experience that I was willing to share. To have stood on a table with megaphone announcing to the world that I have this ADD $#!+ would have put my career at risk and exposed me to ridicule from jealous peers. I survived because I have more common sense than that.

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