Imagine being unable to read a paragraph or follow a conversation without your mind wandering.

Losing track of time is something you’re known for among family and friends, and you can’t seem to meet deadlines despite your best efforts.

Your tendency to speak without thinking sometimes bruises feelings. You may occasionally interrupt people so you don’t forget what you want to say.

Now imagine your friends and family telling you that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is not a real condition, and you should just try harder.

Stigma is a negative stereotype or perception about certain characteristics, often based on misinformation or misunderstanding. It can lead to harmful consequences, especially when health is involved. Mental health conditions are frequently subject to stigma.

Despite growing public knowledge and awareness of mental health conditions, there are several common misunderstandings about ADHD that persist and lead to stigma.

According to Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), these myths include the following:

  • It isn’t a real disorder.
  • It only affects children, not adults.
  • It only affects boys or isn’t as severe in girls and women.
  • It’s diagnosed too often.
  • Bad parenting leads to ADHD.
  • People with ADHD are overmedicated.

Neurotypical vs. neurodivergent

Neurotypical describes someone who processes information in ways that are typical within the dominant culture and among their peers. On the other hand, neurodivergent describes people who process information in a different way due to differences in their brain. People with ADHD sometimes identify as neurodivergent, but ultimately how they identify is a personal choice.

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Stigma can make it challenging to live with ADHD. It can also make it difficult for parents or guardians who care for children with ADHD.

ADHD stigma might cause challenges in social, job, and school settings. It may also affect how a person with ADHD views themself, especially if they start believing the negative stereotypes about ADHD. This is called internalized stigma or self-stigma.

ADHD symptoms like impulsivity and inattention affect every day functioning and interactions with others. According to research from 2019, this means people with ADHD can sometimes be perceived as:

  • impolite
  • unreliable
  • immature
  • weak in character
  • emotionally dysfunctional

Stigma can lead people with ADHD and caregivers to avoid seeking care, which means delayed diagnosis and treatment. Untreated ADHD is linked to several negative outcomes, according to a 2015 research review. These include:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • personality disorders
  • low self-esteem
  • relationship difficulties
  • job instability
  • problematic parent-child interactions
  • substance use disorders
  • higher rates of crime and motor vehicle accidents
  • increased mortality rate

There’s also stigma attached to treating ADHD with medication. Misperception about medications being an “easy fix” or compensating for inadequate parenting may make people with ADHD less likely to seek treatment.

Stigma in different age groups

ADHD is a condition that affects people of all ages. Therefore, stigma can affect people at any stage of life.

For example, adults with ADHD may fear disclosing their diagnosis at work due to stigma. Children may feel judged by their classmates at school for behaviors related to ADHD, finding it difficult to fit in and make friends.

Some research suggests children with ADHD are four times more likely face peer rejection compared with neurotypical children. This can happen after even just a few hours of interaction.

In adulthood, different kinds of stigma can make it more challenging to live with ADHD. Participants in a 2018 study reported experiencing effects from:

  • internalized stigma
  • anticipated discrimination
  • perceived public stigma

In addition, the media generally covers stories about ADHD in children in classroom settings. This creates the impression that adults do not experience the effects of ADHD and reinforces the notion that ADHD isn’t a real condition or that it always ends after childhood.

In reality, estimates suggest 50 to 70 percent of children with ADHD will continue to experience it in adulthood.

Caring for a child with ADHD can present its own challenges. Many caregivers in this situation navigate stigma.

It’s possible you’ve felt scrutinized by other parents, the child’s teachers, and even healthcare professionals. Stigma can affect the caregiving and treatment choices you make, such as deciding whether to have your child take medication.

Affiliate stigma may be causing these feelings. Affiliate stigma is a type of internalized stigma that affects family members or caregivers of people with a condition such as ADHD.

Research from 2020 suggested affiliate stigma can:

  • lower quality of life
  • increase stress
  • affect the level of care given to the person with ADHD
  • lead to less cooperation with healthcare professionals
  • cause negative attitudes toward ADHD diagnosis and treatment

Education is a powerful tool that can help reduce stigma. Research has found that personal contact with people who have ADHD and education about ADHD myths are two effective ways to reduce stigma.

If you want to help address ADHD stigma, consider sharing:

  • Your own story: If you’re living with ADHD or caring for a child with ADHD, you can raise awareness by sharing your story. Take advantage of opportunities to increase awareness of the condition in your own social network, local school systems and organizations, news outlets, and beyond.
  • Information about treatment: Inform others that medication is not a way to compensate for actual or perceived inadequate parenting or laziness. Instead, it works by correcting ADHD brain chemical differences, and it’s usually effective.
  • New research findings: Sharing information about ADHD research can help reduce stigma by demonstrating the medical validity of the condition. For example, a 2017 brain imaging study revealed neurologic differences in boys with ADHD when compared with neurotypical peers. This allowed researchers to identify different subtypes of ADHD in the group.
  • Reputable sources for learning: Organizations, like Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA) and CHADD, are good places to start when looking for ADHD resources and support.

For many people, the stigma connected to ADHD makes the condition more difficult to live with. Stigma can interfere with diagnosis and proper treatment, leading to worse health outcomes.

Sharing accurate information about ADHD is an effective way to help reduce stigma. Whether you offer stories from your own experience or facts and statistics from reliable sources, you’re helping build a bridge between people with ADHD and those who have stigmatized feelings about the condition.