What you need to know
There are a lot of people in the UK who have ADHD, though many of them won’t know it. To give you an idea of how common it is, around 1% of the population are thought to be autistic, the whole of Northern Ireland make up a total 2.8% (according to Wikipedia), whereas a whopping 5% of people in the UK are estimated to have ADHD. But even though ADHD is one of the most common psychiatric conditions in young people in the UK, and on average is thought to have a more detrimental long-term impact on a person’s quality of life than disorders like anxiety or depression , the government seems to take ADHD even less seriously than it takes other mental health conditions. For example, in the Department of Health’s NHS Mandate for 2018/19, there are various goals that seek to improve service provision for specific conditions including eating disorders, psychosis and disorders that can be managed using brief psychological therapies (i.e. anxiety disorders and mood disorders such as depression). Even, autism is mentioned three times in the mandate, whereas no attention is paid to ADHD despite being three times as prevalent and pretty difficult not to mention in a discussion about Autistic Spectrum Disorders (there are many overlaps between ADHD and ASD and they often come together).
The last thing we want to do is suggest that different types of mental health and neurodevelopmental disorders are any more or less important, or even that ANY of them are being adequately prioritised, because they are definitely not. However, we do want to draw attention to the fact that existing campaigns to tackle mental health stigma and autism awareness have led to some improved recognition (although, granted, people are still trying to ‘cure’ autism). There’s a long way to go, but these other disorders are at least being discussed, and politicians do acknowledge and talk about them because they know that people care.
But only people with ADHD seem to talk about ADHD. Beyond this, it can feel like nobody is taking it seriously, nobody seems to care, and that few people even bother to pretend to care. ADHD is rarely included in teacher training, or health professional training. And the reason why? Not because it’s any less serious or impacts fewer people, but because despite being one of the most researched and well-established disorders in all of psychiatry, it is also one of the most stigmatised disorders in all of psychiatry.
What does stigma look like?
If you’ve ever read anything about ADHD in the media you’ve probably come across the view that it’s something there’s not a full consensus on, that it’s a made up disorder or an excuse to give kids dangerous drugs. You might think that it’s a creation of our current society or our current times, or only prevalent in certain parts of the world. You might think it only affects kids, or even only hyperactive white boys. These are all examples of the stigmas that ADHD faces today, despite the fact that any scientific dispute over the validity of the disorder was put to rest by 1994, 28 years ago, by conclusive evidence from MRI scanning showing that people with ADHD have clear brain differences. But that’s not much of a surprise, given how persistent the stigmatisation of other types of ‘deviation from the cultural norm’ in terms of sexuality, ethnicity, religion or gender identity has been throughout history, even when there was plenty of evidence showing that those prejudices were unfounded and irrational. Historically, misperceptions are always persistent, and if you think stigma against ADHD doesn’t exist, try typing ‘ADHD medication’ into an Apple Store internet browser and see what suggestions come up.