Don’t dismiss ADHD as an excuse to get drugs

Photo by Chris Ho / The Peak

Written by: Eva Zhu, Peak Associate

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a disorder that causes difficulty in brain function and development. Two common symptoms are hyperactive-impulsive thought and difficulty maintaining attention — symptoms with which I am all too familiar.

I could be listening to a professor speaking two feet away from me, or working on an Excel spreadsheet at work, only to literally fall asleep in disinterest. Sometimes I forget chunks of my day, month, or even year. Sometimes I might not even remember what I was doing five minutes ago.

ADHD has been acknowledged in the Diagnosis and Statistical Manual, the primary guideline for mental illnesses in America, since its third edition in 1980. The disorder itself is found in at least 4% of adults and 5% of children. But this hasn’t stopped people from doubting its existence, even in professional neurology and psychology. We may be much better at treating ADHD than we used to be, but people still don’t take it seriously, and that’s a problem.

This is something disputed even in the professional psychological setting. Dr. Richard Saul is one of these individuals, writing a book in 2014 called ADHD Doesn’t Exist. Elsewhere, he’s further claimed that ADHD is merely an excuse for individuals to obtain stimulants. This has been echoed by Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan, and has created a questionable debate out of many identified symptoms.   

If I could live my life without needing medication that temporarily rewires my brain, I would. My meds are expensive, they come with awful side effects, and they take time to start working. It’s far from something to take lightly, and these professional arguments frame this disorder as an excuse to get drugs, rather than an actual disorder. In reality, meds assist in a way that other methods (such as therapy) simply can’t always accomplish.

This perception of ADHD is determined by more than just professionals though. Much of the skepticism also comes from its use and reputation in post-secondary specifically. This is because many post secondary students use stimulants used to treat ADHD, such as Adderall or Ritalin, just to study longer and more effectively. It’s resulted in becoming known as a “study drug” rather than a prescription medication.

Recreational use is horrible enough by being a serious health risk, but it has also made it harder for college students who actually have ADHD to be diagnosed by adding to this reputation. After all, it’s fully reasonable for doctors to doubt people who claim these symptoms if those claims are a common ploy to get drugs. It’s unfair to have this additional challenge of skepticism for those with ADHD who need treatment.

What this all leads to is a perception of ADHD as just being an excuse for being fidgety or lazy, and want drugs for quick fix. In reality, they typically have a million ideas in their head at once, but are more easily distracted. This distraction makes it hard to start or continue tasks, and this medication helps maintain focus.

The relationship that students have with drugs, and the perspectives it causes in professionals, make it difficult for people to take ADHD seriously in so many respect. I should feel open to talk about it without feeling that someone is going to doubt my problems, or view them as an excuse. ADHD is real, and its drugs are more than a student trend.