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ADHD: Perception and Reality

Written by green crane, Molly Hartle.

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is among the most studied and most controversial mental disorders in the world.1 Whereas the scientific community has spent years trying to verify the disorder, a number of people question its very existence. Indeed, ADHD is so controversial that one of the articles featured on the National Resource Center on AD/HD’s Web sites includes an exploration of “myths and misconceptions.” Myth No. 1? “ADHD is not a real diagnosis.”2 Thus, half the battle in researching the disorder is wading through the myriad of information documenting this controversy.

This can be confusing for the ardent parent of a child who continues to fail to live up to their potential due to hyperactive behavior or the inability to concentrate. Parents, understandably, may take comfort in the disbelievers claims that ADHD is a myth but continue to struggle to understand and treat their child.

No doubt one of the reasons for this controversy and parents’ ensuing struggle is the perception of mental health in America. The Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Health (DSM-IV) manual used to diagnose ADHD operates on the premise that mental illness is caused by internal rather than external forces. This presupposed the idea that mental illness if the fault of the individual while simultaneously negating the role of outside events.3 Indeed, one of the architects of the DSM-IV recently broke ranks with the psychiatric community by publicly admitting that 30 percent of children diagnosed with ADHD are normal.4 Some researchers speculate that the reason ADHD is said to be greater in the U.S. than in Europe is due to the more restrictive criteria of the tenth edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10).5

The origins of the DSM-IV are further expanded upon in “Unraveling the Bipsychiatric Knot: the Future History of the Radical Mental Health Movement.” According to the author, among the major markers in the evolution of modern psychology was the introduction of the DSM-III in 1980. Written by a school of psychologists looking to rid the profession of superstition, the new edition shifted the diagnoses from a vaguely defined collection of psychoanalytical descriptions to an objective checklist of symptoms. This left little room for mental distress to be anything other than a disorder let alone something considered normal. It also made mental illness far easier to treat, eventually opening the door to drug therapy and the rise of pharmaceutical companies.6

By contrast, indigenous cultures see the symptoms of mental illness as a vehicle for divine connection. Schizophrenia, for example, is viewed as means of helping the sufferer to expand into higher realms of consciousness:

Yet instead of encouraging and bolstering the development of such transcendental levels of awareness, mainstream psychiatry seeks—out of fear of the unknown, the unconscious, the numinous, the irrational and the abnormal—to stifle it under the euphemistic and patronizing guise of “treatment.”7

None of this is to say that the symptoms of ADHD aren’t real. In Delivered from Distraction: Getting the Most out of Life with Attention Deficit Disorder, the authors describes the ADHD child as being so distractible that even the threat of a gun couldn’t persuade him (or her) to stay on task: “Sooner or later he’d forget the gun was there, and he would drift off.”

Thus, whereas the symptoms of ADHD are real, perception is our system of assessment.

  1. Mark L. Wolraich, “Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: The most studied and most controversial diagnosis,” Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews 5, no. 3 (1999): 163–168.
  2. Phyllis Anne Teeter Ellison, Ed.D., “Myths and Misconceptions about ADHD: Science Over Cynicism,” National Resource Center on AD/HD, http://www.help4adhd.org/en/about/myths.
  3. Rob Santich, “Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” (presentation, the National Herbalists Association of Australia’s 6th annual conference, Canberra, Australia, September 2007).
  4. Rob Santich, “Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” (presentation, the National Herbalists Association of Australia’s 6th annual conference, Canberra, Australia, September 2007).
  5. Rob Santich, “Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” (presentation, the National Herbalists Association of Australia’s 6th annual conference, Canberra, Australia, September 2007).
  6. Sascha Alman DuBrul, “Unraveling the Biopsychiatric Knot: the Future History of the Radical Mental Health Movement,” The Icarus Project, April 19, 2010, http://theicarusproject.net/biopsychiatry-knot-future-visions.
  7. Niyati Evers, “Interview with Colin Campbell—African Sangoma,” The Icarus Project, August 17, 2008, http://theicarusproject.net/%5Bcatpath%5D/shamanic-perspectives-on-mental-illness.

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