In a world of ideal mental health awareness, everyone would be a trained psychotherapist with extensive knowledge of ADHD symptoms. I wouldn’t have to explain my inattentive moments, my impulsive decisions or my fluctuating motivation because everyone would know that those are part of ADHD.
But mental health awareness isn’t about perfection. I don’t expect that everyone will learn the symptoms of ADHD, and the world’s probably a more interesting place for us not all being trained psychotherapists.
Instead, I think the point is to build enough of a shared understanding to cut back on misinterpretations and stigma surrounding what ADHD is and why people with ADHD act the way they do. If you want to learn what the symptoms of ADHD are, that’s definitely a fantastic way of reaching this shared understanding, but if you want something more basic, here are four fundamental things that I’d want everyone without ADHD to know.
1. We are trying
Teachers, family members, coworkers, and anyone who interacts with people who have ADHD commonly interpret the things people with ADHD do as indicating a lack of effort.
They see people with ADHD not paying attention, carelessly overlooking details, failing to stay organized and on task, impulsively starting new projects and not finishing old ones… and they think to themselves: if I was acting that way, it would be because I just wasn’t trying.
The problem is that you can’t interpret the actions of someone with ADHD through the lens of your non-ADHD brain. No matter how much effort people with ADHD exert, they can’t stop themselves from being inattentive, hyperactive and impulsive.
Telling someone with ADHD to try harder won’t get you anywhere. It’ll either alienate them because they feel misunderstood, or it’ll make them believe erroneously that they do need to try harder – and then become increasingly frustrated as they spin their wheels faster and continue to fail. A better way to support someone with ADHD is to help them figure out how they can restructure the task at hand in a way that minimizes the effects of their symptoms and fits with the way their brain works.
2. It’s not personal
People with ADHD sometimes do things that are, frankly, annoying. Their lack of inhibition causes them to interrupt you while you’re talking. Their inattentiveness leads them to miss social cues. Their failure to plan ahead makes them run late.
The important thing to realize, however, is that none of these behaviors are personal. Interrupting you or being late to meet you doesn’t reflect on how they see you as a person. Chances are the person with ADHD is more frustrated with these behaviors than you. After all, you only experience these aspects of ADHD when you’re interacting with the person, but the person with ADHD has to put up with these symptoms all the time!
3. People with ADHD can thrive
So far I’ve referenced a lot of the challenges that come with ADHD. Inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity are no walk in the park. Or, sometimes, they are a walk in the park, but at precisely the moment when you really need to be doing something more productive.
It’s understandable that you might read these symptoms and conclude that people with ADHD are hopeless cases. Seeing these symptoms firsthand might lead you to the same conclusion.
But people with ADHD have plenty of potential to be happy and successful – to thrive in any meaningful sense of the word.
The thing about people with ADHD is that they have a wide gap in how they perform in situations that play to their strengths and ones that don’t. A core feature of the ADHD brain is that it needs a certain amount of stimulation and reward to kick it into gear.
Once it gets into gear, though, it can really go. Instead of being haphazardly inattentive, it can become hyperfocused. Research suggests that the different attentional style of people with ADHD can predispose them to excel at certain types of creative tasks.
For all the challenges that come with ADHD, ADHD isn’t a sentence to nothing but failure. When they find environments that play to their strengths, people with ADHD can thrive.
4. There’s no scientific debate over whether ADHD is real
Just because your uncle wants to debate you over whether ADHD is a “made up” disorder after a few too many glasses of wine doesn’t mean there’s any legitimate scientific debate to be had.
ADHD has been researched extensively, and the mountains of studies on the topic point to a clear conclusion: people with ADHD have brains that work differently. These people perform differently on neuropsychological tests, and they experience different outcomes in almost any area of life you look at, whether it’s employment, education, finances, relationships or traffic accidents. ADHD is real. And as far as mental health conditions go, it’s not even particularly new.
There are topics that are more ambiguous, like what the most effective interventions to help people with ADHD are. Or whether ADHD meds are overprescribed, underprescribed, or – quite possibly, depending on what demographic you look at – both. If you want to have a debate about ADHD, there are plenty of topics where reasonable people who are informed about the state of ADHD research can and do disagree. But whether ADHD exists in the first place is not one of them.
Mental health awareness is, of course, a case where the more you know the better. But when it comes to understanding ADHD, I think these are my top four. What would you want people without ADHD to know?