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Jill Rattray: Stop scaremongering – ADHD diagnoses improve and save lives

The idea that ADHD is a 'fad' or a result of social media usage is incorrect and dangerous.

Woman appearing overwhelmed.
ADHD is still misunderstood in parts of our society (Image: Billion Photos/Shutterstock)

The idea that ADHD is a ‘fad’ or a result of social media usage is incorrect and dangerous, writes Jill Rattray, who was diagnosed with the condition as an adult.

Recently, sev­er­al stor­ies have ap­peared from vari­ous me­dia out­lets, scaremon­ger­ing about in­creased dia­gnoses of ADHD. It has been dis­missed as a celebrity fad, an epi­dem­ic and the latest must-have men­tal health con­di­tion.

Let’s clear up the first bit of mis­in­form­a­tion: ADHD isn’t a men­tal health con­di­tion, it’s a devel­op­ment­al dis­ab­il­ity.

Most of the com­plaints are fairly sim­il­ar – critics say this isn’t ADHD, it’s just people spend­ing too much time on their phones and us­ing so­cial me­dia. What they need to do, we’re told, is put down their devices and try harder to pay at­ten­tion.

Quotation from guest columnist Jill Rattray: 'People with untreated and undiagnosed ADHD are at significantly higher risk of job loss, relationship breakdown, addiction and fatal accidents.'

So, clearly, these are people mis­un­der­stand­ing everything about ADHD. It’s a bit worrying that a couple of them were doc­tors.

We’re talk­ing about adult ADHD here; mostly people in their thirties, forties and fifties. One of the key dia­gnost­ic cri­ter­ia for ADHD is that symp­toms ex­ist be­fore the age of 12. Most adults currently seek­ing a dia­gnos­is turned 12 be­fore smart­phones or so­cial me­dia were in­vented.

Diagnosis is rising, but ADHD is not overdiagnosed

So, why is there an increase in ADHD diagnoses? Today, there’s more in­form­a­tion about what ADHD is. We’re more aware of in­at­tent­ive type ADHD, and of how the con­di­tion can dis­play dif­fer­ently when factors like race, gender and oth­er dis­ab­il­it­ies are ac­coun­ted for.

Far from over-dia­gnos­ing the con­di­tion, we’re only reach­ing the tip of the ice­berg.
Re­search sug­gests that around 5% of people have ADHD. In Scot­land, that means around 275,000 people. Yet, NHS Scot­land’s own fig­ures show only 16,000 Scots are pre­scribed ADHD med­ic­a­tion. Over 90% of people in Scot­land who have the condition are un­aware.

Thanks to a free­dom of in­form­a­tion re­quest, there are fig­ures for the num­ber of adults diagnosed by NHS Lothi­an. Between 2016 and 2021, it was only 140 people. In 2017, I was one of just 11 wo­men.

During 2019, NHS Grampi­an was cri­ti­cised by the Scot­tish Pub­lic Ser­vices Om­buds­man for its policy of re­fus­ing to even refer adults for a dia­gnost­ic as­sess­ment.

ADHD isn’t a social media trend

A dia­gnos­is can take years to get. My own was ob­tained 18 months after I first went to my GP – nowadays, that’s a short wait­ing time. The only al­tern­at­ive is pay­ing for a private as­sess­ment.

If you don’t have ADHD, this may seem trivi­al, but it is dam­aging and even cost­ing lives.

People with un­treated and un­dia­gnosed ADHD are at sig­ni­fic­antly high­er risk of job loss, re­la­tion­ship break­down, ad­dic­tion, and fatal ac­ci­dents. While 5% of the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion has ADHD, in prisons it’s 25%.

Problems don’t end with dia­gnos­is; post-dia­gnost­ic sup­port is prac­tic­ally non-ex­istent.

Medication is heav­ily stig­mat­ised and sub­ject to misinformation. For many people, myself in­cluded, it’s an in­cred­ibly ef­fect­ive tool. But it doesn’t work for every­one, and it can’t work alone. Yet, often it has to, be­cause there’s noth­ing else.

ADHD doesn’t just af­fect at­ten­tion, and – con­trary to the name – we don’t have a de­fi­cit of atten­tion, we struggle to con­trol it. So, some­times, we do find it difficult to fo­cus on a task, but, at oth­er times, we can hy­perfo­cus, even to the ex­tent that we for­get to eat or sleep. It also impacts on our im­pulse con­trol, emo­tion­al reg­u­la­tion and how we sleep.

ADHD af­fects the brain’s ex­ec­ut­ive func­tion, so, plan­ning, or­gan­isa­tion, task ini­ti­ation, flexible think­ing – all the things many neur­o­typ­ic­al people take for gran­ted. Most ADHDers will be dis­missed as lazy be­fore they will ever be offered help.

A diagnosis can change someone’s life

A dia­gnos­is can help people un­der­stand their own brain and reach out to oth­ers with ADHD. There are great com­munit­ies on­line, of­fer­ing peer sup­port and ad­vice. The likes of YouTube, In­s­tagram and Tik­Tok have many users shar­ing their ex­per­i­ences, as well as strategies that can help people with ADHD get things done.

One of the recent news­pa­per art­icles I read claimed dia­gnos­is was a bad idea be­cause people would then use ADHD as an ex­cuse for not do­ing some­thing. That couldn’t be fur­ther from the truth.

After someone gets a dia­gnos­is, they’re more likely to be able to get things done, because they un­der­stand them­selves better and can use dif­fer­ent techniques to help.

People with ADHD need dia­gnoses and sup­port from gov­ern­ment, and they need scaremon­ger­ing and ri­dicule in the press to stop.

Jill Rattray writes about issues that affect neurodivergent and disabled people in the UK, particularly Scotland