One of the things about mental health stigma is that you don’t even need to be open about your diagnosis to experience it. Just having symptoms that other people can observe is enough to make them treat you differently, even if they don’t know the “label” behind those symptoms.
An example comes from a recent survey of 1,008 adults in Germany, the results of which were published this month in a paper titled ADHD, Stigma and Continuum Beliefs.
The researchers doing the survey asked participants to consider short descriptions of children and adults displaying ADHD symptoms. Survey participants weren’t told that the behaviors described were based on ADHD symptoms. That’s how things work in real life, of course: most of the time when you encounter someone with ADHD, they’re not going to have a sign on their head telling you they have ADHD.
Predictably, the researchers found that ADHD symptoms influenced people’s impressions of the children and adults in the descriptions. A quarter of the survey participants said they were annoyed by the behaviors. People generally said they’d accept the ADHDers as coworkers or neighbors, but they were more hesitant when it came to renting someone with ADHD a room or giving them a job recommendation.
The researchers considered one more variable, which is really the main point of the study: did people perceive the symptoms being described as being on a continuum?
This refers to the idea that ADHD symptoms are on a spectrum, where normal inattention and impulsivity are at one end, and clinical symptoms are just what you get if you turn up the dial.
What the survey showed was that when people saw the behaviors described as existing on a continuum, they were more accepting of the children and adults with ADHD, and tended to see the ADHDers as less socially distant.
Now, this might seem somewhat counterintuitive, because those of us with ADHD generally hate it when people hear about our ADHD symptoms and say, “oh yeah, I have that too.” We want ADHD to be recognized as something distinct that most people don’t experience, because we don’t want our mental health condition to be trivialized.
But the results of this study made me think there is an alternate way to handle the irritating “everyone experiences that” type of comments we sometimes get. Specifically, maybe these comments are an opportunity to explain to people that yes, ADHD symptoms are kind of like when you have trouble concentrating on something boring, it’s just that happens to us all the time so the effect on our life is more widespread.
Similarly, most people have some experience where they’ve felt the need to skip the task they should be doing in favor of some task that’s more rewarding. Maybe it’s worth telling people that ADHD is kind of like that, except our brains are wired to always be honing in on whatever offers an immediate reward.
I’m speculating, based on the results of the study, that this might be a good way to explain ADHD. It seems like it could potentially make the point that ADHD is different than everyday inattention, but that as people we aren’t different, and so we shouldn’t be stigmatized. Feel free to share your thoughts below!