This week I have been consulting Dr TikTok, to discover I possibly have ADHD. According to the millions of diagnostic “tools” that proliferate across the platform, I seem to exhibit the vast majority of “signs”.
See user @neuronush (“sharing awareness” to her 95.5k followers), who explains that ADHD sufferers hate loud noises, noisy eating, slow walkers and making plans. Well, I fully loathe slow walkers. And I’m weirdly sensitive to bangs. Meanwhile, @doctorshepard_md red-flags the fact that I’ve been labelled “moody and sensitive” and that I “fidget in my chair”; @usamedical offers an adult ADHD test in which he asks whether, I “have trouble remembering appointments” or feel “overly active”; while @connordewolfe suggests I might have “hyperfocus”, whereby I become obsessed with random tasks.
Despite having been first diagnosed in the late 18th century, attention deficit disorders are now the quintessential modern malaise. According to ADHD UK, some 2.6mn people in the UK have the condition, with adult incidence at 3-4 per cent of the population. Figures from the ADHD Foundation charity suggest a 400 per cent increase in the number of adults seeking a diagnosis since 2020. In the US, 9.8 per cent of children aged 3-17 years have received an ADHD diagnosis, according to a national survey of parents using data from 2016-19.
This week, a BBC Panorama documentary explored the rapid rise in adult diagnosis, via the boom in private clinics as well as the rise in use of powerful ADHD drugs. As waiting lists for treatment on the NHS can stretch to as long as five years, people are increasingly paying private specialists and clinics to be seen. Unsurprisingly, when you outsource healthcare and the use of expensive methylphenidates (the main component in Ritalin and Concerta), the probity of some private clinics might be slightly compromised. As the BBC documentarian discovered, he was thrice diagnosed with the condition over video calls, while a final appointment with an NHS consultant concluded he did not have ADHD.
I am no ADHD denier, but it can sometimes seem like everybody has a claim. A colleague who was diagnosed with ADD in his twenties puts it plainly when he says: “when the main tool of diagnosis is to ask if you feel distracted by things that don’t interest you — everyone has ADHD.” He doesn’t feel stigmatised by having a neurodevelopmental illness, nor the issues it causes to his mental health. But he bristles at the assumption made by many that, by taking medication, he is somehow taking a “performance-enhancing drug”.
Certainly, there’s a brisk trade in ADHD meds in the playground, especially in exam month, where half a Concerta, a can of Red Bull and a doughnut will guarantee an uninterrupted 14-hour revision buzz. (I tried to score some Ritalin for this column as research, but unfortunately some geography student beat me to it and the ADHD dealer is closely monitoring her supplies.)
And if it feels like everyone has ADHD symptoms, that’s probably because they do. In his book Scattered Minds, the physician and ADHD expert Dr Gabor Maté argues: “if anyone who exhibits any trait of it were to be diagnosed with ADD, we might as well put Ritalin in the drinking water and sign up most of the industrialised world for group psychotherapy.” He goes on to quote Drs Edward Hallowell and John Ratey, authors of Driven to Distraction, which pioneered a broader understanding of ADD, who say that “ADD is a diagnosis not of category but of dimension.” We probably all have little traits. Moreover, at times of extreme stress we may well find our brain tipping over into more extreme behaviours: ADHD can affect us, and go away again, at different times in life. The main issue, Maté argues, is not whether you exhibit any symptoms but how pronounced they are: the trouble arises when the characteristics become so overwhelming they “impair a person’s functioning to one degree”.
Yes, I am easily bored by things that bore me. I’m forgetful, I zone out and often feel an “unremitting lack of stillness” (as Maté puts it) in my brain. In 1934, the New England Journal identified “organic drivenness” as being a distressing quality in some people’s lives. And I totally get that feeling. I also need the threat of failure or the promise of reward to fulfil tasks. I mean, look — right now! I’m on a crazy deadline! What further evidence do you need? And did I mention I hate noisy eaters? However, as far as I can ascertain, I’m still able to carry on a fairly unimpeded life.
Rather than suffering from any major mental illness, I am simply managing some of the condition’s lesser and fairly harmless traits. Basically, I’m just a highly irritable human, who may well one day need some help.