Why is ADHD off the radar?


Michelle Beckett argues we are ignoring a national emergency that is harming one in twenty of our children

Imagine there was a life-limiting neurological condition that affected over 550,00 children and 1,650,000 adults in the UK: one that you were born with, as genetically hereditable as height; one so serious that if left undiagnosed and untreated it could mean that your life expectancy could be reduced by as much as 25 years; with an 80 per cent chance of poor mental health such as anxiety and depression; one that leaves you 11 times more likely to be unemployed and twice as likely to get divorced.

A bit far-fetched? Let’s take it further. Now imagine kids with it were 100 times more likely to be excluded from school, or it increased adolescents’ risk of self-harm by as much as 8.5 times. What if 25 per cent of all prisoners were affected by this condition, 25 per cent of alcoholics and substance abusers and perhaps two-thirds of homeless people?

But imagine if it was really easy to reduce these terrifying statistical risks, as this condition can be successfully treated. Not only that, but treatment was inexpensive and safe, with 80 per cent of children and adults gaining enough relief to function, realising their potential. And by doing this, it would improve countless lives, saving billions of pounds for the NHS, schools, the police, prisons and the Department for Work and Pensions.

What if those affected could really flourish if diagnosed and supported, allowing natural strengths such as quick thinking, creativity, drive and passion to shine through?

Now imagine most sufferers had no idea they had it, were currently being treated for the wrong conditions, or told they were “badly behaved” or “failures”. Imagine also that most doctors, parents and teachers didn’t know what to look for.

It would be incredible, wouldn’t it, if elements in the media regularly reported that the condition didn’t exist, or that public figures cried out in horror that potentially life changing medicines were being given to these children, when all they needed was a better diet or less screen time? On top of all of this, imagine it often took several years to get diagnosed, if you were lucky enough to get on a waiting list at all, and that some parts of the country didn’t even have a service for the condition. This scenario isn’t dystopian science fiction that we have to imagine. This is the reality for those living with ADHD in the UK.

Lack of awareness

So why is this happening? The primary issue seems to be lack of awareness of the condition coupled with huge stigma. For many years, ADHD was labelled as a “behavioural disorder”, and not a neurodevelopmental condition sitting alongside (and often accompanying) others such as autism and dyslexia. Given that it is believed to affect one in 20 children, it is astounding that teachers, medics and social workers are given little or no mandatory training in ADHD.

There is also the misconception and stereotype of the “naughty” boy, displaying obvious physical hyperactivity, struggling to keep up at school, unable to concentrate on anything at all. This is why so many of our children get missed – those who don’t misbehave, who are bright and don’t struggle academically and who may internalise their super-fast and bouncing mind. There are also those that have hidden their anxiety by handing in perfect homework, yet struggled to start, before taking many angst-filled hours to complete it.

Then there are the rife misconceptions and stigmas surrounding treatment for ADHD. Medication works extremely well for around 80 per cent with ADHD. Medication is safe (though of course all medication carries some risks), with the risks into adolescence of not being treated far outweighing minor short-lived side effects such as appetite suppression. It doesn’t “dull” children, turn them into zombies or change their personality. It allows children (and medicated adults like myself) to thrive, and be who they know they can be, feeling well and functional.

Yet we are under-diagnosing and under-treating ADHD in this country, particularly in girls.

Recent research reported in the Guardian newspaper has revealed that only 0.35 per cent of girls in this country are treated for ADHD, when the figure should be 5.3 per cent.

Girls with ADHD are far more at risk than boys for high levels of poor mental health and self-destructive actions across the lifespan and their rate of moderate to severe non-suicidal self-injurious behaviour is 50 per cent.

There is strong evidence that we are harming our children through under-resourcing, and perpetuating misunderstanding and stigma.

SEN professionals have a huge part to play in addressing misunderstandings about ADHD. It should be at the forefront of your minds as a potential underlying cause for issues you may never even have associated with ADHD. Many high IQ and high performing students suffer from ADHD. They are more likely to slip through unnoticed.

Possible signs of ADHD

Please think “potential ADHD” if a student:

  • has learning challenges in one form or another
  • struggles with executive function and disorganisation, poor time management or late homework
  • exhibits inconsistent performance compared to ability
  • underperforms compared to ability, even if that is very high
  • shows any behavioural issues
  • displays physical hyperactivity, fiddling or skin picking
  • shows impulsive behaviours
  • exhibits any listening or concentration impairments
  • is excessively chatty
  • is socially inappropriate or has problems with peer groups
  • has any mental health issue if under 18, including eating disorders, anxiety, depression and poor self-esteem
  • has emotional dysregulation
  • is a school refuser
  • has a chaotic family life (ADHD is genetic, so there is a strong likelihood that one or more parents are affected; don’t automatically assume that a chaotic family is the root cause, it’s more likely ADHD is)
  • has parents who complain the student shows poor behaviour at home, but this isn’t apparent in school.

We’ve a long way to go, but the fixes aren’t onerous or expensive. Teachers need mandatory training on ADHD, but this could, for example, be online. Managing kids in the classroom suspected of ADHD can be done inexpensively with some basic tips.

We need to push the messages that ADHD is real and medication is an option that is proven to help and is not to be scared of. Teachers can even help give feedback to parents and clinicians to get the medication dose right.

Above all, make it your mission to pick up children and young people with ADHD that have been missed by everyone else. ADHD nearly claimed my own life until my late diagnosis aged 44. I strongly believe that I would still not be identified if I was in school today.

Further information

Michelle Beckett, who has ADHD, is the founder and CEO of ADHD Action and a guiding force behind the All Party Parliamentary Group for ADHD:

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