The Importance of ADHD Awareness

Interview With Dr. Ruth Hughes

The mission of ADHD Awareness Week is to educate the public about ADHD by disseminating reliable information based on the evidence of science and peer-reviewed research. Photo © ADHD Awareness Coalition

Undiagnosed, untreated ADHD can wreak havoc on a person's life, and it can also impact his or her loved ones. Each year, we recognize ADHD Awareness Week as a time to celebrate the progress made in ADHD education and advocacy, understand the work that still needs to be done, and raise awareness about the importance of early diagnosis and treatment. Without ADHD awareness, many children and adults continue to struggle.

Ruth Hughes, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and Chief Executive Officer of CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), the nation's leading non-profit organization serving individuals with ADHD and their families. She is also the mother of an adult son with ADHD.

Through CHADD, Dr. Hughes works to increase understanding about ADHD year round. I had the opportunity to connect with Dr. Hughes on this important topic of ADHD awareness.

Q: Why is ADHD awareness so important?

Dr. Hughes: There may be as many as 15 million adults and children in the U.S. with ADHD, based upon prevalence studies and the 2010 census data. ADHD is also one of the most common disorders of childhood. Despite this, there is a huge amount of bad and misleading information on the internet and in the media about the condition. In addition, there are people with ADHD who have never been diagnosed, but have lives filled with problems directly related to the symptoms.

CHADD and our partners in the ADHD Awareness Coalition want the world to have an understanding of what science and research tell us about this disorder, and we want people to know that ADHD is real, that it's highly treatable, and that there are many choices in treatment—including interventions other than medication.

Q: What are some of the misconceptions about ADHD?

Dr. Hughes: The most glaring is the belief that ADHD is not real. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is a well-documented neurological disorder: an individual's brain develops and functions differently with ADHD. There is a deep body of research on ADHD, and every major medical and health organization in the US recognizes the legitimacy of this disorder. Individuals don't choose to have these symptoms, but they do have the responsibility to learn to manage them.

ADHD is an equal opportunity disorder and is not the result of poor parenting—another common myth. You can be an exceptional parent or a terrible parent, and still have a child with ADHD. Good parenting will help your child learn to manage the symptoms better, but it won't prevent the occurrence of ADHD. There is a strong genetic link, and most families can identify other family members who exhibited the same symptoms.

Another myth about ADHD is that anyone can be diagnosed with it, based on a list of behaviors that all of us exhibit at one time or another. Not so. When diagnosed properly, having the symptoms is just the first step. In addition, these symptoms must be long-term in nature—at least six months—and persistent every day.

The symptoms must also be severe enough to cause a significant impairment in functioning in a major area of life, such as school, work, family or social life. And lastly, other causes of the symptoms must be ruled out. Only when all of this is done, should a diagnosis of ADHD be made.

Q: ADHD Awareness Week's theme is "the Many Faces of ADHD." Can you explain a bit about why this theme was chosen?

Dr. Hughes: ADHD is a lifelong disorder for most folks. You may be a child, an adult or a retired grandparent, and still have ADHD. Like many disorders, the symptoms may be expressed differently in different people.

For one person, it may be a huge problem with impulsivity and hyperactivity. For another, it may be about the ability to pay attention. For some, the symptoms are very mild and easily controlled, while for others, the symptoms are quite severe and disruptive. In addition, two-thirds of people diagnosed with ADHD have other co-occurring disorders as well: depression, learning disabilities, anxiety, and autism spectrum disorders are just a few. There are many faces of ADHD, but the most important message is that many, many people with ADHD manage their treatment effectively and live full and rewarding lives. Many also achieve fame and fortune. You can, too.

Q: What can families do to help increase awareness and understanding about ADHD?

Dr. Hughes: Science tells us that the most effective way to deal with any kind of stigma is to know someone with the disorder who is stigmatized. It's easy to say that ADHD is not real, or caused by bad parenting, when you have no experience with it. But if family members can learn to be comfortable saying to others "I have ADHD," or "A member of my family has ADHD," that usually stops people in their tracks and opens the door for some real dialogue. Because my son was so hyperactive, it was clear to almost anyone around him that something was going on. He had to choose between explaining his ADHD and being labeled a screw-up. He chose to tell people that he had ADHD. Only when we stop hiding, will the stigma and misunderstanding truly disappear.

ADHD Awareness Week brings together a number of national groups concerned about ADHD and mental health. The partners include the Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA), the ADHD Coaching Organization (ACO), ADDitude magazine, and Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD). In addition, dozens of other health-related groups and government agencies recognize and celebrate ADHD Awareness Week, sharing information in this disorder. We encourage readers to check out the Awareness Week website and help us to spread the word.

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Ruth Hughes, PhD; email correspondence, October 12, 2012