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Dr Hallowell ADHD and mental and cognitive health

A resource about ADD, ADHD, and mental health




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Dr. Hallowell, “I Know How Terribly Crippling ADHD Can Be.”

Recently I received an “open letter to Ned Hallowell” in which the author took me to task for stating that ADHD is not a disorder but rather a trait.  She then went on to explain how much pain and suffering ADHD has caused her, and she criticized me for implying that she did not have a disorder (which I most certainly did not mean to do).  She said that while ADHD may not have disabled me, it was certainly disabling her.

Her letter reflects a widespread misunderstanding of my position.  Let me take a moment to clarify where I stand.

Whenever I say that ADHD is a trait, I immediately go on to state that it can indeed be a disorder, and that it can ruin a life. The prisons, the ranks of the addicted, the halls of the unemployed, the people who have been multiply divorced, the people who suffer from depression, and even the people who commit suicide are over-represented by people who have ADHD.  It would be absurd to claim that ADHD cannot be a crippling, chronic, lifelong disability.  I fully acknowledge how desperately painful life with ADHD can be.  Short of the severe outcomes mentioned above, ADHD often leads to a lifetime of underachievement, frustration, unmet potential, and ongoing sadness, if not despair.

I know how terribly crippling ADHD can be.  I’ve been treating it for over 30 years in people of all ages, so I have seen firsthand how devastating ADHD can be.

My point in calling it a trait, rather than a disability, is that ADHD, if managed well, can also be associated with success at the very highest levels.  I have adult patients who are self-made millionaires and billionaires; who are CEO’s and successful entrepreneurs; who are Pulitzer Prize winners and Academy Award winners; who are professional athletes; who are brain surgeons and prize winning scientists; in short, I have patients who function at the very top of almost any field you can name.

I also have patients who are blissfully married, love their children, love their friends, and live full and happy lives.

This is what makes ADHD so interesting, if not unique. It can lead a person in one extreme direction or another: either great success or terrible disappointment.  Indeed, both can happen.  A person can lurch from triumph to disaster and back to triumph again.  People with ADHD rarely give up, which is one of the many reason I love them so much.

The key to maximizing the chances of the best outcomes is to get skilled treatment.  Unfortunately, few doctors understand ADHD, either in children or in adults, and so the care that’s meted out is spotty at best.

Great researchers like Russell Barkley, Thomas Brown, Sam Goldstein, Len Adler, Mary Solanto, Peter Jensen, and many more have devoted their careers to pinning down the various ways in which ADHD can impact lives, and we owe them a huge debt.  It was not so long ago that people laughed at ADHD as if it were a moral failing, not a legitimate medical condition, much as people used to trivialize depression or anxiety.

Now, thanks to major advances in neuroscience, epidemiology, cognitive psychology, and various related fields we have a sophisticated understanding of ADHD.  But the public, and much of the medical profession, does not understand ADHD.  It remains shrouded in ignorance and stigma.

Stigma is one of the greatest obstacles to people getting the help they need.  No one wants to be called disabled or disordered.  The reason that I point out that ADHD need not necessarily always cripple a person is, aside from being true, that it instills realistic hope.  I see all my patients as champions in the making. Hope leads to far better outcomes than despair.

This is why the positive psychology movement, let by Martin Seligman and his group at the University of Pennsylvania, have delivered such a profound and pivotal shift in how we regard mental health.  No longer is it only about what’s sick, disordered, disabled, or pathological.  It is also about what’s healthy, gifted, talented, and valuable.  By recognizing both sides, the healthy and the impaired, we stand a far better chance of promoting health and limiting disability.  That’s what I am trying to do with ADHD.

My goal is to educate and also to instill hope, hope rooted in science and true-life experience, that will lead to the best outcomes possible for a brave and resilient group of people subsumed by the cumbersome and confusing term, ADHD.

Please understand.  I know how awful life with ADHD can be.  But I also know how wonderful it can be.  Working together, we can help everyone become the best they can be, whatever obstacles they may face, whatever conditions they contend with.

Our greatest power as people lies in connection, in working together.  As I am fond of saying, “Never worry alone.”  Worrying together we tap into each other’s resources and come up with solution after solution.

Let me say to the woman who wrote me that open letter, You are a brave and strong woman.  You have suffered a great deal.  I am sorry that someone over-simplified my position in such a way that it hurt you.  I hope that this note corrects that, and makes clear what I actually do believe.

Working together, we will progress, we will prevail.  And we will feel joy in doing so.

2 Responses to “Dr. Hallowell, “I Know How Terribly Crippling ADHD Can Be.””

  1. blueroses4me says:

    Dr. Hallowell,

    Your book, “Driven to Distraction”, was the book that opened my eyes to the possibility that I may have AD/HD. That was over 20 years ago.

    Now,not only do I have AD/HD, but my spouse and two teenage daughters have it. That’s a lot of AD/HD in one household! But, never in all these years of knowing about my AD/HD, have I ever had more respect for one who I consider my “go-to” guy than you. Your clarity on how to manage, approach, and appreciate my AD/HD, is spot-on.

    While I can understand the “open-letter’s” frustration, I also can see someone who may be looking for that “excuse” to fail.

    For example, I struggle not only with AD/HD, but dyscalculia. Math. Ugh. I’ve always had a problem with it and a friend of mine who is a whiz at it couldn’t understand my troubles with it. After the diagnosis, she did. But, that didn’t give her a reason to give up on me. It just opened her eyes (and mine too) on new ways to teach it. And it works! Not only am I better able to figure math problems, I’ve learned how to teach my daughter, who has the same condition.

    I know I will never be a math whiz, nor do I really care to be. Where my strengths/gifts lie, is in something I AM passionate about, which is storytelling and writing.

    What you are doing to bring a positive light to AD/HD works! And is contagious!

    Thank-you so much!

  2. edie says:

    Letter to Dr. Hollowell’s blog/response

    Having raised 3 children (one with ADHD & two with ADD who are now in their 40’s, college grads, married with children, I believe having a diagnosis is necessary for proper treatment whether it is behavioral, medical , academic or creating strategies to cope. Regardless if it is referred to as a trait or a disability, there is something going on in the child which makes him/her deal with life situations differently. It is important for a parent to have the problem identified and enlist all resources available in order for this child to realize his/her greatest potential so that he/she functions comfortably in his environment & is able to develop the highest self esteem possible.

    We, as parents, need to understand what is going on with the child in order to provide what the child needs to help him achieve his goals in life. This is the greatest gift a parent can give and it requires evaluation, diagnosis, proper treatment in the form of understanding on the part of the parent & child, trying different strategies, tutoring, guidance, medication – whatever it takes.

    It is not an easy road. It is fraught with resistance, misinformation & misunderstanding by many.

    In the end the child has the possibility of becoming a wonderful contributor to the world around him in a style that works for him.

    Quit nitpicking about words. The important things is to help your child in every way possible to become the best person, the most productive person, the person with self respect and remember a diagnosis helps with appropriate treatment of the child/adult.

    There has been a lot of debate & negativity in the past about the terms “hyperactivity” & “learning disabilities”. There has been a lot of debate about whether to medicate or not. There has been debate over causes including diet. Reality is: there are no easy answers. I, personally think we owe Ned Hollowell our thanks for being so passionate about this subject and bringing it to the forefront and helping people understand that this “trait” does exist in its many forms and is not a death sentence. There is HOPE for these kids and adults!


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