ADHD: Why are so many adults being diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder?

Could an epidemic of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) be afflicting Britain’s adult population?

Or are many instead being over-diagnosed with the condition and even put on drugs that in the long term may diminish their mental abilities and increase their risk of serious illnesses such as brain disorders?

A spotlight’s been thrown on ADHD this month after comedian Johnny Vegas, 52, became the latest in a wave of celebrities to announce they have been diagnosed with ADHD (others include comedian Rory Bremner, chef Heston Blumenthal and TV presenters Ant McPartlin and Sue Perkins).

Johnny Vegas told BBC Breakfast: “Everybody has an element of ADHD. But it’s about how strong your filter is. When you don’t have a filter at all, simple things become time-consuming.

“I’ll think, I’ll shift that cup, and then you have ten other ideas and you haven’t shifted that cup. Three weeks later it’s become this monumental task.”

In yesterday’s Mail, Inspire columnist Dr Clare Bailey described her own experiences with ADHD.

ADHD is a serious, complex neurobiological condition characterised by inattentiveness — such as having a short attention span, being easily distracted, appearing forgetful or losing things — and impulsivity, for instance, being unable to sit still and concentrate.

Camera IconJohnny Vegas (right) was diagnosed with ADHD. Credit: Brian J Ritchie

As many as one in 20 adults in Britain has the condition, according to the charity ADHD Foundation, but only 120,000 have had a formal diagnosis — the charity said this is because of a “combination of poor understanding of the condition, stigma and delays in diagnosis”.

Yet growing diagnosis levels among adults are causing alarm among some UK experts. Joanna Moncrieff, a professor of critical and social psychiatry at University College London, told Good Health: “Diagnoses of adult ADHD are running rampant now.”

She is particularly concerned that screening tools for ADHD are too lax, meaning too many people are simply “diagnosing” themselves.

As an illustration, the ADHD Foundation’s online self-assessment includes questions such as, “How often do you have difficulty keeping your attention when doing boring or repetitive work?” and “How often do you make careless mistakes when you have to work on a boring or difficult project?” Many of us might readily answer “Yes, often” to those.

Other questions suggest that people may have adult ADHD if they often “misplace or have difficulty finding things at home or work”, are “distracted by noise or activity” or “have difficulty wrapping up the final details of a project, once the challenging parts have been done”. Again, these may seem like everyday experiences for many of us.

Meanwhile, there has also been a surge in videos and posts on social media websites claiming to help people spot the signs of ADHD, again with broad-ranging symptoms so everyone could think they had ADHD — and should you have ADHD, you can then sign up for “support”, or perhaps pay for an online course.

TikTok videos with the hashtag #ADHD, which have been viewed 20.2 billion times, include one that sets out “six signs you may have adult ADHD” — these include losing interest in hobbies, always being late and “scrolling TikTok and ignoring texts”.

On Instagram, meanwhile, one ADHD expert describes how chronic constipation can be a symptom. Someone comments: “I would never have made that link.” That’s possibly because none of these symptoms features in the official diagnostic criteria.

ADHD is defined in the psychiatrists’ bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), quite strictly.

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