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Stop Telling Women with ADHD to Sit Down and Shut Up

In the past two years, a huge amount of progress has been made in challenging negative stereotypes about ADHD. With the condition no longer being mistakenly written off as something that only affects naughty little boys, more and more adults are being diagnosed. 

As someone whose own ADHD wasn’t revealed until well into my 30s, I welcome this progress. But not everyone feels the same. In tandem with the rise in public awareness of ADHD, a damaging popular narrative is emerging in the mainstream UK media.

This narrative – which in recent months has appeared in multiple features published on respected, widely-read platforms such as The Guardian and Refinery29 – implies that ADHD is being wildly over-diagnosed, framing women who seek out treatment and support as being little more than gullible consumers jumping on an ephemeral pop-culture bandwagon. 

Not only does this encourage dismissal of the lived experiences of women like me, it also legitimises doubts about the validity of our diagnoses. For example, in a recent feature in The Observer, a well-known relationship therapist was uncritically quoted as saying: “Diagnosing adults with ADHD is bonkers. Just call it anxiety.” This, frankly, is bullshit. 

So let’s change the conversation.

Let’s stop talking about how ADHD is being over-diagnosed in women when fewer than 0.1% of adults in the UK are receiving treatment, and a huge body of research suggests that its incidence in the entire adult population is somewhere between 2 and 4 percent. 

Let’s stop assuming that the rise in the number of women seeking out information about ADHD is somehow a quirky symptom of our collective obsession with TikTok and/or having too much time on our hands during the pandemic. Please, just take a moment to appreciate how unbelievably patronising that is.

Let’s agree that having absolutely valid concerns about how systematic underfunding of the NHS is driving a disturbing rise in aggressive marketing tactics from private healthcare providers does not give anyone a right to silence or ridicule the hundreds of women (and men) who pay for medical care privately when there is no other option.

And while we’re at it, let’s stop suggesting that an ADHD diagnosis is a fashion statement for white, middle-class women like me. 

Because if you analyse that idea for more than one microsecond you can see that, of all the people in the country who could do with some support for their unmanaged ADHD, the ones most likely to be able to pay for it are those who face fewer institutional barriers to healthcare, education and employment.

Let’s tone down the disingenuous concern about whether or not the medication that I take is actually just a medically controlled dose of speed. 

Because if we’re playing that game, then let’s acknowledge that the co-codamol that you took for that migraine last week is actually just a medically controlled dose of heroin, and the glass of Chardonnay you drink every night is actually just a socially acceptable dose of meths necked directly out of a paper bag.

It’s true that there are important questions to ask about the way that neurodevelopmental conditions like ADHD are talked about and treated. It’s true that the language used to describe and frame ADHD is often problematic – like many others, I do not consider myself to have a ‘disorder’ – and it’s true that not everyone agrees on the best way forward. 

In fact, there are some hugely exciting sociological and philosophical debates in the UK and beyond around the idea of neurodiversity, and the rejection of the medical model of disability in favour of a social one that says we are disabled not by our own brains and bodies, but by the unrealistic expectations and inaccessibility of the world in which we live.

But let’s stop weaponising these questions and uncertainties against the very people most affected by them. Let’s accept that there is more to learn, more to discover, more to educate ourselves upon. Let’s stop assuming that we know better than those living with a condition that – through whatever lens you choose to view it – can at times be utterly crippling.

So next time you hear someone claiming that ADHD is being overdiagnosed, or is a product of social media addiction, or is just a cheap excuse for people who are too lazy and entitled to pull their socks up and be better – don’t just take it at face value.

 Call it out. Be curious. 

Go and talk to people who live with ADHD every day, who know their own experience inside out, and listen to them. If you think you don’t know anyone with ADHD, consider why that might be (because statistically speaking, you probably do). 

Ignoring and dismissing the voices and experiences of women with ADHD is both incredibly sexist and hugely detrimental to our collective understanding of neurodiversity. 

So let’s stop telling people like me to sit down and shut up – and let’s start listening.

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