Putting a New Face on ADHD

Posted May 5, 2009 at 1:08pm

If there is one mental health disorder that has captured the attention of the American public over the last few decades, it is attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Some people joke about it; others take it seriously. But one thing is certain: People know about ADHD, and increasingly educators, parents and adults are learning effective ways to manage the disorder. But this hasn’t always been the case. [IMGCAP(1)]Ask anyone who grew up with ADHD before 1990, and they will tell you that no one, except perhaps those in exclusive research circles, really understood the neurobiological disorder that can be marked by inattentiveness, hyperactivity, impulsivity or some combination of the three symptoms. Schools were not required by law to provide accommodations, many doctors had never heard the term, and parents everywhere simply blamed their own lack of skills for their children’s “difficult— behavior. But children aren’t the only ones affected. Many adults live with severe cases of the disorder, and for them, the recent past was full of lost jobs, missed opportunities, even failed marriages. In many ways society is still recovering from this lack of education about ADHD. If we only knew just how many brilliant people fell through the cracks. Thankfully, we’re part of a new generation. We grew up during a time of great advances in the public’s understanding of ADHD. We were born in the late 1980s, when a bridge was built between the scientific community and the public. In 1987, a group of parents and a psychologist founded Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, a national grass-roots organization dedicated to raising ADHD awareness and advocacy. By the early 1990s, the Department of Education announced that people with ADHD would be served and protected under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. This legislation had an enormous impact on the quality of our education and the education of our peers and teachers, as we were the first generation of students with ADHD whose school accommodations were required by law. By the late 1990s, many adults were being evaluated and diagnosed with ADHD after their children were diagnosed. Support groups for adults with the disorder and parents of children with ADHD were springing up across the country. The National Institutes of Health released the results of a major study showing the most effective ways to treat the disorder. Major media outlets carried stories about ADHD and for the first time, celebrities spoke publicly about their lives with ADHD. A revolutionary change took place in how American society viewed people with the disorder, and we were on the winning end.We have both accomplished a great deal despite our ADHD. One of us published a book about living with ADHD and attends a top-ranked university with the hopes of becoming a surgeon. The other is a junior with a 4.0 grade point average who recently competed in the Miss America pageant with a platform of raising awareness about ADHD. We are both convinced that our accomplishments wouldn’t have happened had we grown up in an earlier era. But despite the progress and the fact that life is better for people with ADHD, there is still so much to be done. As National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day approaches, we are preparing to visit with our Members of Congress on Capitol Hill to discuss the importance of providing incentives that will increase the number of child and adolescent psychiatrists so more children will be identified and treated earlier in life. There is an acute shortage of child and adolescent psychiatrists that impedes access to quality health care for many children and teens. We favor a bill (to be called the Child Health Care Crisis Relief Act) that Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) will introduce this spring, which will provide loan incentives for medical students who decide to pursue the profession. We will also be rallying for more research funding in such areas as alternative and complementary treatments for ADHD and neuroimaging. And we will call on the government and nonprofits to do more to reach African-Americans and Hispanics, two groups that remain underserved and undertreated. As young adults with ADHD, we have many professional and personal goals that we intend to accomplish. But our No. 1 goal is to leave the world better than we found it. We want future generations of people with ADHD to have even more support than we had. But all the published books and platforms on the topic are not enough. Continued progress will require a shared commitment from public policymakers, researchers, educators and the public. It’s achievable, and together we can make it happen. Blake Taylor is the author of “ADHD & Me— and a pre-med student at the University of California at Berkeley. Courtney Gifford is a communications major at Sheridan College and the reigning Miss Wyoming.