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Growing Use of ADHD Label Risks ‘Medicalising Human Experience’: Experts

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In light of the increasing number of people seeking ADHD diagnoses, mental health professionals are debating whether it is best to use diagnostic labels that may “medicalise the human experience” instead of delving into the psychological significance behind people’s symptoms.

According to the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines, the adult incidence rate of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a condition in which people can seem restless, may have trouble concentrating, and may act on impulse, is between 3 and 4 percent. The rate for children aged between 6 and 8 is 1.5 percent.

However, some organisations say the number of adults in search of a diagnosis is skyrocketing.

Talking to the BBC in January, the ADHD Foundation said it had seen a 400 percent rise in adults going to them compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic. NHS data released in 2022 showed a 35 percent increase in prescriptions between 2015–16 and 2020–21 for children and young people for drugs used to treat the symptoms of ADHD.

But some are questioning the rise and exploring what is behind the condition.

‘Pathologisation of Behaviour’

Ben Harris, a psychotherapist in private practice in London, told The Epoch Times that he believes that we are “living in a culture that incentivises and encourages the medicalisation of human experience.”

“What we need to do less in our culture is to think less about diagnostic labels, and more about the meanings, the meaning of people’s experience, because that’s the only way you can understand what ADHD means to a specific person,” he said.

“Is there more ADHD than there used to be? Well, diagnostically, it appears so. There could be various reasons for that,” he said, adding that in certain cases, parents or indeed adults do want to have a diagnosis.

But he added that we “could be incentivising the diagnosis of these symptoms of lower and lower threshold.”

He said that what we should be doing is looking behind the label “because I’m pretty certain that ADHD is likely many things that have been grouped together under one label.”

“So you’ve got this problem, potentially as I would see it, with the medicalisation of human experience, and the pathologisation of behaviour that previously might have been tolerated and thought of as within the norm, as now being seen as outside the normal,” he added.

‘Are You Saying My Distress Isn’t Real?’

Dr. Damian Wilde, a psychologist with numerous years of clinical and therapeutic experience in the NHS, told The Epoch Times that an ADHD “diagnosis is quick, but formulation takes time.”

“People want quick these days, which is modelled by the government and society, people need to slow down,” he said.

He argued that ADHD isn’t an actual illness.

“But what happens is people say, ‘Are you saying my distress isn’t real?’” he said.

“I am not saying that for anyone with an ADHD or bipolar diagnosis; their distress and their struggles are very, very real,” he added.

“What I am saying is that the explanation isn’t because of a disorder, it’s because of life events,” he added.

Wilde said that people will experience normally one or more of the following: trauma, difficult life events, neglect, lack of opportunity, poverty, day-to-day stress, poor relationships, and being treated badly.

“For example, if someone says he never ever cries, you could think that [is] a symptom of a disorder, and then it might turn out that it may be because he got shouted at as a child for crying and got told it was wrong,” he added, saying this is an example of formulating which can take up to several sessions.

Epoch Times Photo
The ADHD rate for children aged between 6 and 8 is 1.5 percent. (Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

A 2015 review in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry claimed that ADHD is being overdiagnosed, and argued that the definition of ADHD in doctors’ guidelines has broadened in recent years.

Other researchers have called for more UK children to be given drugs such as methylphenidate, commonly branded as Ritalin, to treat ADHD.

An ADHD assessment takes place with a specialist neurobehavioral psychiatrist and normally takes one to three hours, using a list of symptoms from the reference book “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” often known as the “DSM.”

Wilde said that when he worked with a team in NHS Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services, child patients may have difficulties with attention, but by speaking to parents and schools, he was able to formulate an explanation.

“The explanation isn’t that they have got a disorder called ADHD, but the explanation wasn’t, for example, about attributing blame but saying, for example, perhaps the child has witnessed a trauma and this is a reaction,” he added.

He added that sometimes if someone gets an ADHD diagnostic label, the risk is they don’t have to look at themselves, quoting the famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung who said, “Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside awakes.”

“Whatever we call it, the end goal is the same, that is what can we do to help,” he added, explaining that ADHD advocates will say you need diagnostics to access certain services.

‘We Can Lose the Essence of a Person’

“But the problem is with a diagnosis, is the attribution becomes the disorder, the child does something, that’s because of his ADHD, and it can’t be helped,” he said.

He noted a trend of people putting a “neurodiverse” label on social media biographies.

In an article titled “Mental illness doesn’t make you special,” the publication UnHerd wrote about a “thriving ADHD community” on TikTok and Tumblr where people “who view their attentional difficulties not as an annoyance to be managed with medical treatment but as an adorable character trait that makes them sharper and more interesting than others around them.”

Wilde said that the problem with such a diagnosis is it can become part of a person’s identity, which can halt recovery.

“With psychiatric diagnosis, we can lose the essence of a person here in some ways, because it becomes about the disorder rather than about the person’s likes and interests,” he added.

“It can stop people from exploring and finding out the real reason for their problems and secondly, it becomes part of their identity,” he said.

“People can say, ‘I am always going to struggle I am always going to be unwell because of this illness, I’ve got this disorder,’” he added.

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