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Why I’m wary of the ADHD industrial complex

I used to think it would help that influencers are raising awareness about a disorder I struggle with. Today, I’m not so sure.

By James Bloodworth

To live with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is to wage a constant battle on two fronts. First, one must live with the symptoms that accompany the neurological disorder. This entails a struggle to prevent one’s life from being derailed at any moment by a dysfunctional brain that is constantly foraging for dopamine.

But there is another battle that takes place too: an outward battle against a wall of polite scepticism. Indeed, one of the first things I discovered upon being officially diagnosed with ADHD in 2020, aged 37, was that many people simply refuse to accept that the thing is real. “Isn’t everyone a bit ADHD?” they would ask me in sceptical tones. Sometimes this would be followed by a phrase carrying a more hostile note, along the lines of “everyone” having a disability these days.

At the root of such dismissive attitudes is the idea that ADHD is merely the latest fad. It is another badge of victimhood, slipped on like a new overcoat to make one appear “special”. After all, do we not all swim in a culture of instant gratification where our dopamine reward centres are constantly being hijacked? Is ADHD not, at root, just another excuse, trotted out by people like me who – let’s be honest – preferred to muck around at school than settle down and do the work?

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As with so many other aspects of politics and culture, the American experience – where pharmaceutical companies are said to give out medicine for ADHD “like sweets” – is often assumed to have been transposed onto Britain. Yet in this country it can be very hard to get a diagnosis for ADHD. Waiting times for an adult ADHD assessment in some parts of Britain are as long as five years. What we actually have in Britain is a crisis of under-diagnosis: between 3 and 5 per cent of children in the UK are thought to have ADHD, yet only around 1.5 per cent are formally diagnosed as having the disorder.

Nor does the notion that social media is transforming grown men and women into dopamine fiends – a trope that is ubiquitous in pop-science – have much evidence to back it up. While certain technologies may cause symptoms that mirror those of ADHD, any causal effect is small and probably short-term. In contrast, ADHD is a lifelong disorder that someone is born with – a disorder that often goes unnoticed. This is why I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 37: not because social media wasn’t around back then, but because ADHD was so poorly understood.

Since my school-days the medical profession – along with teachers, carers and society in general – has become much better at picking up on the signs of ADHD, so these days there are more diagnoses. Society has also got better at spotting ADHD retrospectively. In recent years a growing number of people (myself included) have received diagnoses for ADHD as adults. Such assessments usually feature a significant historical assessment (looking back with a psychiatrist at old school reports and seeking out references from family members).

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I am a walking, fidgeting example of how society’s increased awareness of ADHD is a positive thing. Since my diagnosis I’ve learned a great deal about how best to manage my condition. Medication helps, but just as important is not beating yourself up over past failures. Moreover, things can get easier upon receiving a diagnosis: since taking medication I’ve discovered that some of the things I previously thought of as irksome aspects of my personality were in fact elaborate coping strategies I’d adopted over the years. They were not me after all, and discovering as much has been intensely liberating.

The new public awareness of ADHD is most obvious on social media. Videos in the #ADHD channel on TikTok have accumulated 8.6 billion views; #ADHDinwomen 859 million. A recent minute-long TikTok video by a young content creator with no medical training in ADHD got 2.2 million likes. ADHD Instagram pages – some of which I follow – churn out cartoon-style memes that reach similarly large audiences.

I call this the ADHD industrial complex. There are YouTubers, such as How to ADHD (one million subscribers), that produce content that is both popular and well-informed. But there is also a growing band of social media influencers whom people with ADHD could probably do without: those putting out popular but scientifically dubious ADHD content in the name of “raising awareness” (and making money).

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The influencer economy, with its clicks-at-any-cost ethos, was never likely to be good at conveying information about a complex neurological disorder. And I’m increasingly convinced that some of the content churned out by ADHD influencers is actually nudging us back toward the bad old days when ADHD was rarely taken seriously.

An ADHD meme that recently provoked scorn on Twitter encapsulates the problem I have with awareness raising for clicks. The brightly coloured meme, entitled “ADHD and alcohol”, depicts a cycle familiar to most drinkers, neurodivergent or otherwise: we consume alcohol, we feel sick and regretful, and then we promise never to drink again.

This is obviously not a state of being particular to those with ADHD. And yet the burgeoning ADHD industrial complex churns out content like this with the ADHD tag attached – presumably because it is “relatable”. And one way to make such content “relatable” is to water it down. The average person scrolling through TikTok or Instagram is supposed to feel an affinity with the meme and click through to a website that is selling something. Thus, through the prism of social media, what can be debilitating symptoms of ADHD morph into eccentric personality quirks, superficial characteristics and crude stereotypes. Have you had too many beers? Do you spend too much time scrolling on social media? Then you might have ADHD.

The irony here is that substance abuse – linked to poor impulse control as well as the need to escape one’s frenetic mind – is common among sufferers of ADHD. Yet in seeking to make this symptom relatable in order to attract clicks and likes, the ADHD industrial complex feeds the very scepticism about ADHD that it ought to counteract. The alcohol meme – taken from the Instagram page of a popular ADHD Instagram influencer with almost half a million followers – was accompanied by thousands of snarky comments when it was posted on Twitter. Most riffed on the idea that people with ADHD were – as usual – jumping on yet another excuse to behave irresponsibly. ADHD has become “trendy”, several commenters remarked.

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As anyone with ADHD knows, there is nothing trendy about having a neurological disorder. For me, living with ADHD is a bit like rowing a boat that has a hole in it. You move through life falteringly because so much of your time is consumed with trying to do the basics: with ensuring the vessel stays afloat.

I used to think those driving the ADHD industrial complex were on my side. Today, I’m not so sure. Increasingly, they seem to be inadvertently pushing an older, more damaging trope: the one that says neurodivergent people – and marginalised people in general – are forever demanding special treatment.

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