In recent years, public interest in ADHD has been undeniable with its massive (and continually growing) presence on social media. #adhd videos have gotten more than 26 billion views on TikTok, much more than content on depression or general mental health awareness.
Social media has broken down the walls of the traditional “doctor’s office” and increased availability of information, often first-hand experiences and insights from people who do not just know about ADHD but live their lives with ADHD. “That sounds just like me”, often reported as a moment of epiphany for the curious audience, has led to a spike in queries for assessment and a “ADHD diagnosis wave”. But, is this all a trend, or could ADHD assessments truly be worthwhile?
ADHD symptoms, according to the DSM-5a criteria, is a list of external behaviours, which most people will relate to and check off at least one or two. It is incredibly easy to obtain a list of ADHD symptoms from the Internet, check them off, and self-diagnose. However, the self-diagnosis process could lead to confirmation bias, i.e., our tendency to seek out and favour information that confirms pre-existing views. This bias could go in both directions, i.e., false positives (thinking you may have ADHD when you do not), and false negatives (thinking you do not have ADHD, when you do). Coping strategies (e.g., reminders, routines, structures) may work so well that symptoms such as “forgetful in daily activities” may never be checked off, keeping ADHD well under the radar. Exploring the possibility of ADHD with a trained professional allows a comprehensive but also nuanced analysis, managing limitations of self-perceptions and biases.
Zebras are zebras, not defective horses waiting to be ‘fixed’. Clarifying the possibility of ADHD could give relief to people who have struggled to live up to benchmarks which simply do not work for them. 6-8 hour (or more!) workdays – yes, it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but it is common, in-demand, and a mainstay of the productivity-driven society. We have become so accustomed to many outcome measures and benchmarks in society, from school grades, to awards and accolades, to GDP. We move through our lifespan, often being on the receiving end of these external measures of us, and our worth in this society. An inward discovery of who we are, ADHD or not, could be a good opportunity for us to revisit these benchmarks we have been keeping up to. Perhaps, there are benchmarks yet to be discovered, which diverge from the ‘common’ and ‘standard’ but fit us to a tee.
‘Stand up for yourself’ – very often, we hear well-meaning and empowering statements like this, to inspire and encourage us to advocate for our needs. The important question is, ‘What exactly are our needs? What do we need?”. These are confusing questions, because sometimes we do not know what we need, or we may not have the words to adequately represent the needs we have in mind. The process of assessment is more so a process of self-discovery, than a means to obtaining a label. For a person with ADHD, the assessment process could be an opportunity to reflect on their personal experiences as an ADHDer, because broad traits may be similar in the ADHD community, but each ADHD individual also brings their unique personalities, interests, cultural backgrounds, strengths and talents. Intersectionality (compounded effects from a combination of different forms of inequality or disadvantages) also matter. The journey in ADHD assessment could help clarify self-understanding, and help individuals to gain the knowledge and language to advocate for themselves.
With an increase in awareness of ADHD, it is the hope of many mental health professionals that this knowledge would translate into humanistic care and compassion for ADHDers amongst us. Beyond the external symptoms in the ADHD criteria, there is growing awareness that ADHD co-occurs with many physical and mental health struggles (e.g., chronic pain, IBS, rejection-sensitivity, depression, anxiety). While it is not possible to determine cause-and-effect directions easily, the correlation alerts us to the toll ADHD has on ADHDers in our current society. With an increase in services for assessment and management of ADHD, we could also be helping our society progress to be more aware and compassionate towards the otherwise hidden and invisible needs of ADHD.
Neurodivergent people are a minority group who are inevitably subject to the risks of discrimination. Coming out as an ADHDer may feel unsafe in schools or workplaces who have yet to put in place systems to protect ADHDers from unfair treatment. For young people, it may feel extremely invalidating if teachers make assumptions about their ADHD (e.g., “don’t use ADHD as an excuse”) or discuss their ADHD without their consent. Fair access to opportunities is a common and valid worry for many ADHDers, a similarity shared with other minority groups in the society. As a society, we are progressing in our awareness, but there are still evident gaps, contributing to assumptions, biases and prejudice. Financial costs aside, the process of ADHD assessment is also an investment of time, effort and emotional energy.
Social media interest has certainly helped to popularise ADHD, but the road to understanding and caring for neurodivergence and individual differences is a long one. The endeavour for progress in our society is here to stay, even when TikTok moves on to the next big trend.
- Written by Hayley Su, Educational/Child Psychologist
aDSM-5 refers to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th edition) is a taxonomic and diagnostic tool published by the American Psychiatric Association.
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