In today’s column, you will be introduced to one of the most common psychiatric conditions, Attention Disorders or what is now called Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. You will learn about the origins of AD, as well as how to recognize it in children, adolescents and adults. But more importantly, you will hear a remarkable story of hope which promises a better future for our children. What is this story?

Mental disorders, psychiatric conditions and emotional illness, all fall prey to myths which perpetuate false ideas about how our brain really works. This is part of the “stigma” of mental illness. The word stigma, or stigmatize, means to disgrace, discredit or to be treated as unworthy. There is another word synonymous with stigma that may be easier for our minds to grasp. That word is discrimination. 

Discrimination against those who suffer from a mental illness is no different from the injustice brought about by the other forms — the color of one’s skin (race), the shape and reproductive capacity of one’s body (gender) or the stage of life one is in (age) — of prejudice. Like race, gender or age discrimination, the stigma against mental illness is not confined by the boundaries of a country. When I lived in Europe, I saw, on a regular basis, the damage done by relegating a person with a mental disorder into a sub-human class. I saw the same symbol in every country I traveled, which to me, illustrates the pervasiveness of mental discrimination. What symbol? I’ll show you: Take your index finger and touch your temple. Next, make a circle with your finger, a small circle the size of a silver dollar; as you perform this circle with your finger, think about what this gesture means. The power in this act is in its message: Someone is “crazy,” “off their rocker” or “unhinged.” Something about their look or behavior was different, so you judged them as “kooky.” Thus, a simple act becomes a universal symbol which, like a loaded pistol, can be used to assassinate the character of another person.

You doubt the power of this? When Sen. John McCain was running for office, his history of being a prisoner of war was used against him. Since McCain was tortured, and because of the torture suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (a mental condition), newspapers said he was unfit to run for office. “What if he went bonkers and started WWIII?” Hogwash!

So, what does this have to do with ADHD? First, picture all the discrimination against mental illness throughout the world as a 50,000 foot high mountain, called Mt. Stigma. By climbing the summit of the mountain, the discrimination against mental illness can be conquered. As you reach the summit of Mt. Stigma, you see a flag perched on the peak that says: “We were here first ... ADD/ADHD.”

The best weapon against discrimination is the truth. The truth about psychiatric illness is discovered from scientific advances which open our eyes to new understanding. With this understanding, treatments can be developed to reduce suffering and to improve the quality of life for our children.

Scientific research on AD’s has established the following:

1. AD’s run in families and are passed down by genetic mechanisms.

2. AD’s are biologically based disorders involving the frontal lobe of the brain.

3. 3-7% of school age children have AD’s.

4. 2/3 of ADD/ADHD children will retain core problems throughout adulthood.

5. ADD/ADHD is found in all countries and in all ethnic groups.

ADD/ADHD has a unique position in the history of psychiatric illness. It was one of the first disorders to have such a unified science base, a clear understanding of its origin, and a known course of effective treatment. 

The story of AD’s is a story of hope: If one psychiatric disorder can be so clearly understood, and effectively treated, then so can all. If one mental illness can conquer the mountain of discrimination, then so can all. When that happens, the finger circling symbol fades away. 

The content of this article is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for treatment by a professional.


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