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Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common mental health condition. While people may use different terms for ADHD, technically it does fall into the broad category of “mental illness.”

Knowing more about ADHD and the terms used in mental healthcare can provide more context for the usage of various terms.

Language matters

Terms used to describe mental health are important. There can be a stigma surrounding many healthcare terms, especially those used when discussing mental health.

Words like “illness” and “disorder” may help professionals objectively diagnose conditions and provide effective treatment, but individuals may choose to use terms that feel the most comfortable to them when describing their own health.

Mental health is an important part of overall health. Any illness, mental or physical, doesn’t signal personal weakness and is no one’s fault.

Healthline

According to the American Psychiatric Association, mental illnesses are treatable health conditions that involve significant changes in emotion, thinking, or behavior — or any combination of these. They are often associated with distress and can affect social situations, work, or relationships.

Although ADHD falls into the defined category of mental illness, it’s most often referred to as a disorder, even by the American Psychiatric Association. As these terms are sometimes used interchangeably in clinical settings, ADHD can be described as a mental illness and a disorder.

The category of mental illness is very broad. Some people prefer to use the term “disorder” to avoid or reduce perceived stigma around the term “illness.” There is nothing shameful about a mental illness, a mental disorder, or ADHD.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) uses the terms “mental illness,” “mental disorder,” and “mental health conditions” interchangeably, and provides no separate definition for a mental disorder.

People living with mental illnesses or disorders have the right to use the terminology they choose, but clinically, there’s no difference between the terms.

The 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, puts forward the language and criteria used by clinicians, researchers, and public health officials to diagnose mental health conditions in the United States. This helps ensure that everyone is using standardized criteria and not random or subjective measures.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is characterized by a persistent pattern of inattention or hyperactivity or impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.

The DSM-5 criteria for ADHD include:

  • Inattention. An individual must have at least six symptoms in children up to age 16, or five or more symptoms for those 17 and older. These must be present for at least 6 months and not developmentally appropriate:
    • does not have close attention to detail or makes careless mistakes with work
    • trouble with attention to tasks or play activities
    • does not seem to listen when spoken to directly
    • does not follow through with instructions
    • trouble organizing tasks
    • avoids tasks requiring sustained attention
    • loses necessary items
    • easily distracted
    • forgetful in daily activities
  • Hyperactivity/impulsivity. An individual must have six or more symptoms up to age 16, five or more age 17 and older. Symptoms must be present at least 6 months and not developmentally appropriate:
    • often fidgets or squirms in seat
    • often leaves seats when sitting is expected
    • climbs or runs when not appropriate (children), restlessness (adults)
    • talks excessively
    • always “on the go”
    • cannot play or stay quiet during leisure activities
    • often blurts out answers before the question is finished
    • interrupts or intrudes often
    • trouble waiting their turn

These symptoms also must be present in two or more settings (school, work, home, social settings) and interfere with functioning in some sort of way.

Symptoms of ADHD can vary depending on the type of ADHD, as well as age and sex. Inattention and hyperactivity/impulsivity are main features of ADHD. While people may display hyperactivity, impulsivity, or inattentiveness at times, for people with ADHD these behaviors:

  • are more severe
  • happen more often
  • interfere with functioning at school, work, or social settings

Symptoms can include:

  • trouble focusing or concentrating
  • forgetfulness with completing tasks
  • easily distracted
  • trouble sitting still
  • interrupting others

Although boys and girls can both have ADHD, boys are about three times more likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis than girls. ADHD presents differently in girls and boys in several ways, including:

  • girls may be more likely to have internalized symptoms like inattentiveness and low self-esteem
  • boys may be more likely to be impulsive and have externalized symptoms like interrupting or fidgeting
  • girls may display fewer behavioral problems and are thus sometimes overlooked for evaluation or treatment

Finding support for ADHD

Healthline

There is no one definitive test for ADHD. Many factors go into the diagnostic process for ADHD. To make a diagnosis of ADHD, a doctor:

  • will assess symptoms that have been present for the last 6 months
  • will gather information from teachers, co-workers, family members, or other medical professionals
  • may use checklists and rating scales to assess symptoms
  • will perform a physical exam to rule out any other medical problems
  • can use the DSM-5 to assess symptoms and ADHD criteria
  • may refer you to an ADHD specialist, neurologist, or psychologist, who can perform a neuropsychological assessment

There is no cure for ADHD, but there are treatments to help manage symptoms. While medication alone may be enough, it may be paired with other treatments to help manage symptoms and behaviors.

Treatments can include:

  • medications
    • stimulant and nonstimulant drugs
  • therapeutic treatments
    • psychotherapy
    • behavior therapy
    • social skills training
    • support groups
    • parenting skills training
  • behavioral interventions
    • organization
    • scheduling
    • organizers
    • positive reinforcement

ADHD doesn’t go away, and there is no cure. However, it is manageable and symptom severity can decrease with age and treatment.

Treatment can help shape behaviors in such a way that ADHD does not interfere with functioning. It can also help you manage symptoms and lessen their impact on your daily life.

While ADHD is technically considered a mental illness, you may also hear it called a mental disorder, especially in clinical settings. Those with ADHD may also use different terms to describe this mental health condition.

What’s most important is getting an accurate diagnosis to find appropriate treatment. This will help you manage symptoms and improve overall functioning.

If you think that you or your child has ADHD, talk with your doctor about your concerns. They can do an exam and discuss next steps with you.