The Controversy Over the ADHD Diagnosis: Here We Go Again

Health Writer

For those of us who were introduced to ADHD back in the late 80's or early 90's, we have seen cycles of negative press against this disorder. I remember watching shows of children who were being drugged, turning them into zombies. I remember listening to stories of parents who simply didn't want to discipline their children and chose, instead, to give them drugs to calm them down. Many of these shows were before my own son was diagnosed with ADHD. Eventually, my son did go on medication, but that day when medication was first tried, I remember wondering if I was simply being lazy, being a bad parent or if I was doing the right thing.

Throughout the past couple of decades since, ADHD has become much more accepted and understood. Even so, there are times when the myths and misconceptions once again come to the forefront. When this happens, the ADHD community rises up, reminding parents, adults with ADHD and the general public, what ADHD is and what it isn't and the role of medication in the treatment of ADHD. In the past few weeks, a couple of news stories have shown up questioning both a diagnosis of ADHD and the use of medication:

  • USA Today recently reported on Yeardley Love's murder trial. George Huguely is accused of murdering Yeardley. Charges against him say that he kicked in her bedroom door and shook her "so violently that her head knocked against the wall" [1] although he has pleaded not guilty. Huguely's attorneys have suggested that a combination of Adderall and alcohol may have caused a heart attack, leading to her death. The chief medical examiner disputes this, indicating that the level of Adderall in Love's system was therapeutic and the level of alcohol lower than those associated with death. But the insinuation that ADHD drugs are dangerous and may indeed contribute to the death of young, healthy college students is clear.
  • A recent opinion piece in the New York Times questioned both the validity of the ADHD diagnosis and the use of medication to treat inattention and lack of focus. Although it may be unfair to choose one portion of the opinion piece when there was so much that many disagreed with, one section which I found difficult to accept was, "Behavior problems in children have many possible sources. Among them are family stresses like domestic violence, lack of social support from friends or relatives, chaotic living situations, including frequent moves, and, especially, patterns of parental intrusiveness that involve stimulation for which the baby is not prepared. For example, a 6-month-old baby is playing, and the parent picks it up quickly from behind and plunges it in the bath. Or a 3-year-old is becoming frustrated in solving a problem, and a parent taunts or ridicules. Such practices excessively stimulate and also compromise the child's developing capacity for self-regulation." [2]

While these two stories are not related and both address different issues, combined they show that, ADHD, one of the most studied disorders of our time, is still surrounded by myths, misconceptions and controversy, for example the previous quote clearly indicates that the writer believes poor parenting causes ADHD. The outcry, from both sides of the issue, after the New York Time's opinion piece was loud and swift. Parents and medical professionals weighed in with their opinion, for example, ADHD: Backlash to the Backlash by Emily Willingham in Many ADHD experts posted opinions and facts of their own to dispute the accusations that ADHD was not a real disorder. Others, such as Dr. Steve Balt, wrote in, how he agrees with the editorial and backing up his own opinion that the diagnosis of ADHD should be eliminated.

For those of us who are parents of children with ADHD, or those who are adults struggling with symptoms of ADHD well into adulthood, the controversy doesn't make any sense. Why is it we can accept that for some people, their eyes don't work "normally" and glasses help them see better or that some people can't regulate sugar in their bodies and need to use a combination of diet and medication to help control sugar? But we can't accept that these bodies have difficulty with focus, attention, impulsivity? While it is true that some children who have behavioral problems because of difficult home situations are diagnosed with ADHD instead of addressing the underlying reason, research has shown that this doesn't occur as often as critics believe and that the opposite may actually be true - that ADHD is underdiagnosed not overdiagnosed.

The debate about the validity of ADHD doesn't matter in "real life." Those dealing with ADHD will still wake up each morning trying to find strategies to cope with inattention, lack of focus, hyperactivity and impulsivity. They will still try harder than their non-ADHD counterparts. They will still strive to make the best of their lives. They will still achieve great feats despite living with a sometimes debilitating disability. But while the debate doesn't make a difference in most people's daily lives, it can cause more emotional turmoil than is necessary, for example when teachers take the side that ADHD is an excuse for your child's behaviors, when bosses believe you just don't want to try or you are simply lazy. Because as the debate continues, those dealing with ADHD must face not only the symptoms of ADHD but the perception that these symptoms don't really exist.


"ADHD: Backlash to the Backlash," 2012, Feb 23, Emily Willingham,

[1] "Medical Examiner: Love's Alcohol Level No Role in Death," 2012, Feb 15, Erik Brady, USA Today

[2] "Ritalin Gone Wrong," 2012, Jan 28, L. Alan Sroufe, The New York Times

"Why We Should Eliminate the Diagnosis of ADHD," 2012, Steve Balt, M.D.,