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Published: June 24, 2017
Eric Mason

Is ADHD a real disorder or a cultural construct?

Eric K. Mason

Eric Taylor, a psychiatrist in the UK, argues that ADHD is a cultural construct. He states that there are “no specific cognitive, metabolic or neurological marker and no medical tests for ADHD.” This results in widely inconsistent diagnoses of ADHD from 0.5% to 26% prevalence rates.

Taylor reports that brain imaging studies are not able to determine if there are abnormalities in the brains of children with ADHD and that any differences found are inconclusive; that is, the differences cannot be said to be the cause of the ADHD symptoms. Furthermore, comorbidity is very high in clients with ADHD; therefore, it could be argued that many other factors are causing the ADHD symptoms observed. Perhaps, ADHD-like behaviors are better explained by other disorders.

Additionally, treatments used to treat people with ADHD often have similar effects on those who are not diagnoses with ADHD, such as increased ability to sustain focus on boring tasks. Taylor argues that pharmaceutical companies have a great monetary incentive to promote ADHD, which leads to “contaminated research.”

Taylor believes that the only way to explain the rise in the prevalence of ADHD is by a shifting cultural perspective. He believe that changes in culture have led to an increase in ADHD diagnosis. For example, there are many factors that adversely affect the mental health of children and people in general. This includes breakdown in families (more single-parent families), parents less willing to discipline their kids (i.e., teach appropriate behaviors), schools which are over-stretched, and an economic system which emphasizes individuality and competiveness. Taylor believes that family lead a “hyperactive lifestyle,” as well, which leads to children learning hyperactive behavior. All of this combined may be more difficult to change than to simply create a disorder and blame the child.

Taylor goes on to argue that a medical model for ADHD is not helpful. He believe it simplifies the problem and leads to doctors, parents, teacher, etc. disengaging from social responsibility. Instead they come up with a “cultural disorder” in which they purport to cure.

On the other side of the argument S. Timimi believes that ADHD is neither a genetic disorder nor a social construct, but rather the interaction of the two which results in ADHD. Timimi cites research which points out that there are difference any brain structure, especially in regards to the dopamine system. Furthermore, he states that all those from all socioeconomic status are affected by ADHD, which he believe supports the idea of it being an actual disorder. He goes on to state that two studies 20 years apart in the UK showed that rates of ADHD have been mostly stable over time. In short, he admits that social factors may play a role, but he does not believe that ADHD can be relegated to a cultural or social construct. He believes that it is more complex than that. Timimi also states that in the UK, ADHD is more like to go underdiagnosed; however, he acknowledges it can be overdiagnosed in some cultures such as the US.

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