The Stigma of ADHD
Despite growing public knowledge about ADHD and other neurodivergent conditions, ADHD remains highly stigmatised and continues to ride on the myths and misconceptions of the community, affecting the way people with ADHD feel about themselves and their treatment. The stigma1 is so pervasive, that some ADHD experts consider it “an underestimated risk factor for other negative outcomes in ADHD, including the development of additional mental health disorders”, let alone a barrier to treatment.
Why is there a stigma?
According to a study published in the South African Journal of Childhood Education titled, ‘Teachers’ experiences of supporting learners with ADHD’, these were the main reasons amongst parents and caregivers:
The study, many parents and caregivers were in denial about their children’s problems and therefore reluctant to consider a diagnosis of ADHD or a suggested assessment from teachers. Then, following an ADHD diagnosis, caregivers naturally experienced disappointment and grief that their child has a learning challenge, because “…no one wants to hear that their child has an issue; it’s not a nice feeling”.
With many ADHD children being socially challenged, parents expressed the difficulty in dealing with their child’s anger and disruptive behaviour, for instance, and controlling their own emotions in the process. There was also concern about how their child’s social behaviour impacts their inclusion amongst their peers and their negative behaviour also causes negative interactions between caregivers and teachers.
As a result of many children not having been medicated properly, parents feel that ADHD medication caused the child to become “very quiet and lethargic”, that medication “changes their personality” or that they “become a zombie”.
Myths and misconceptions
Being a complex condition, ADHD is also poorly understood. Parents of ADHD-diagnosed children, themselves, hold onto many misconceptions about the condition – in a local study published by South African Family Practice2, parents thought that reducing sugar or food additives effectively decreases ADHD symptoms or that their children will simply outgrow their symptoms. The public stigma is furthermore influenced by myths such as ADHD being over-diagnosed, or that it’s caused by too much TV, poor parenting or laziness, all of which are incorrect.
What are the harms of stigmatisation?
• When difficulties are stigmatised, parents and caregivers are unwilling to seek support for the child and there is a reluctance towards treatment.
• The public stigma also frequently results in self-stigmatisation, when people with ADHD “internalise negative stereotypes” and children may say things like “I just can’t make it,” or “I’m not cut out for school”3. This impacts their motivation to study or achieve.
• People with ADHD may deny their condition.
• Social problems such as peer rejection.
• Family members or caregivers can also be affected by affiliate or courtesy stigma, that occurs by when they feel scrutinised by health care professionals, teachers or the wider community.
Coping with the stigma
Doctors have observed that people with ADHD are extremely sensitive to rejection. Said Dr Edward Hallowell, ADHD expert and co-author of Driven to Distraction and Delivered from Distraction4: “In the same way that mild or merely perceived criticism and rejection can cause a person with ADHD to wilt, the smallest forms of encouragement and recognition do wonders to motivate them.” To do just that, Hallowell encourages:
• A support system to provide encouragement and affirmation
• Identifying your child’s talents (and opportunities that cater to them)
• Positive, stable emotional connections
• A creative outlet (even as a hobby)
Combating the stigma
The best way to combat ADHD stigma is through education and having personal contact with person living with the condition. You can do this by:
1. Sharing your own story.
2. Sharing information about medication and treatment, and the way it works.
3. Sharing new research findings that demonstrate the medical validity of the condition.
4. Joining a support group for parents.
5. Getting help at school for your child, e.g. special accommodations.
Ultimately, reducing the stigma of ADHD leads to better treatment outcomes and improves the mental, social and emotional well-being of the people with ADHD and their caregivers.
1. CHADD. (2022). Myths and Misunderstandings. CHADD [Online]. Accessed on 10 October 2022. Available from https://chadd.org/about-adhd/myths-and-misunderstandings/ [CHADD]
2. Coghill, D., Poulton, A., Brown, L. & Bellgrove, M. (2021). Myths and stigma about ADHD contribute to poorer mental health for those affected. The Conversation [Online]. Accessed on 10 October 2022. Available from https://theconversation.com/myths-and-stigma-about-adhd-contribute-to-poorer-mental-health-for-those-affected-161591 [TC]
3. Dwarika, V. & Braude, S. (2020). Teachers’ experiences of supporting learners with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder: Lessons for professional development of teachers. South African Journal of Childhood Education. 10(1): a843. https://doi.org/10.4102/sajce.v10i1.843 [JCE]
4. Joho, J. (2020). Everything you thought you knew about ADHD is wrong. Mashable [Online]. Accessed on 10 October 2022. Available from https://mashable.com/article/what-is-adhd-myths-stigma [M]
5. Lovering, N. 2022. Breaking Down the Stigma Surrounding ADHD. Healthline [Online]. Accessed on 10 October 2022. Available from https://www.healthline.com/health/adhd/stigma [HL]
6. Mayo Clinic. (2017). Mental health: Overcoming the stigma of mental illness. Mayo Clinic [Online]. Accessed on 14 October 2022. Available from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/in-depth/mental-health/art-20046477 [MC]
7. Mueller, A. K., Fuermaier, A. B., Koerts, J., & Tucha, L. (2012). Stigma in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, 4(3), 101–114. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12402-012-0085-3 [J]
8. Rajcumar, N. R., & Paruk, S. (2020). Knowledge and misconceptions of parents of children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder at a hospital in South Africa. South African Family Practice. 62(1): e1–e8. https://doi.org/10.4102/safp.v62i1.5124 [FP]
9. Sherman, C. (2022). Coping With the Stigma of ADHD. ADDitude [Online]. Accessed on 10 October 2022. Available from https://www.additudemag.com/overcoming-adhd-stigma/ [ADD]