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The ADHD decade: what’s behind the surge in adult diagnoses? – Audio Long Reads

The number of adults being diagnosed with ADHD – a condition once reserved for “problem children” – is booming, yet it remains widely misunderstood.

By Sophie McBain and Emma Haslett

On both sides of the Atlantic, the number of people being diagnosed with ADHD is rising. Psychiatry UK, which provides both private and NHS-funded assessments, reports that it is receiving around 150 ADHD referrals a day; in 2022 the organisation expanded its prescribing team from ten to 60.

Why are more people being told they have ADHD? Partly, this is a course correction: adults who were diagnosed with depression or a personality disorder are now receiving a more nuanced, helpful assessment. 

But there is also a more complex story to tell, about the social and cultural forces at play. It is not a coincidence that diagnoses have risen alongside the growth of the internet’s attention economy – a vast infrastructure designed to capture and monetise people’s focus. Nor is it a coincidence that they have increased during an era of cut-throat capitalism, in which ever more people are consigned to desk-bound jobs that place huge demands on their time. In this environment, what is the “right” amount of attention, and what should we give our focus to?

In this deeply reported piece, New Statesman associate editor Sophie McBain talks to psychiatrists and patients about their experiences of treating and living with ADHD. Disorganised and distracted herself, might she have the condition? In the absence of a precise scientific benchmark, what counts as disordered thinking – and what is merely a response to our always-on, multitasking lives? McBain revisits the earliest research into ADHD, its treatment with amphetamines, and explores the modern search for a root cause. If anxiety was one of the defining disorders of the early 21st century, are we now entering the ADHD decades?

This article originally appeared in the 4-10 November 2022 issue of the New Statesman magazine; you can read the text version of the article here.

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Written by Sophie McBain and read by Emma Haslett.

If You might also enjoy listening to The psychiatrists who don’t believe in mental illness by Sophie McBain.

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