Is ADHD a Mental Health or Learning Disability?

May 6, 20249 min
Is ADHD a Mental Health or Learning Disability- little girl holding help message white paper

What is ADHD? 

Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder can sound complicated, right? Let’s break it down. 

Attention-Deficit

Someone with a condition can have a hard time focusing on a particular thing. In your case, this can be a conversation, paying attention to a lecture, or watching a movie. 

However, it may be interesting to note that individuals with ADHD often say that what stops them from paying attention is that their brain focuses on multiple things at the same time. 

Hyperactivity

For someone with ADHD, it may feel like you are running on a motor that can’t stop. You may feel excessive and uncontrollable energy. For example, a child with ADHD in a classroom may feel fidgety and restless. 

One common aspect of ADHD that doesn’t appear in the acronym is Impulsivity. Ever felt like blurting out an answer without raising your hand? Ever felt the need to interrupt while someone is speaking? Typically, impulsivity means doing before thinking. 

The percentage of people with ADHD in India can range from 1.6 to 14%. About 7–10% of children in schools have been reported to have ADHD. This would also mean that it is among the most common disorders in children.

What are the symptoms of ADHD?

Before identifying the symptoms, we can recognize the fact that anyone can have ADHD, even adults! While a lot of us can experience symptoms that may make us feel that we are inattentive or even impulsive, for someone with ADHD, these can persist for much more time (or even all of the time)! 

This can get in the way of their everyday lives and completing important things, such as homework, meeting deadlines, or even maintaining relationships. 

The ADHD symptoms may change in adults. For example, they may not be bouncing from here to there, i.e., their hyperactivity may reduce. But, they may become more impulsive or feel their emotions are out of control.

7 Signs of ADHD

  1. Feel like they have a lot of energy, more than their peer.
  2. Find it hard to pay attention in meetings/lectures, or others’ conversations.
  3. Get distracted easily
  4. Find it hard to sit still
  5. Find it difficult to not shout at others or interrupt while others are speaking
  6. May experience difficulties in learning
  7. May find difficulty in organizing things or is clumsy

What is Mental Health Disability?

One way of defining disability is any condition of the body or mind that makes it difficult for an individual to participate in the environment. For instance, they may find it challenging to engage in certain activities or interact with others around them (CDC, 2020).

The social model of disability acknowledges that being treated differently, having negative attitudes, and excluding people with disabilities make it very difficult for someone with a disability to function well in society.

This would mean that a person with a long-term impairment interacts with barriers in the environment, but it prevents them from participating healthily. For instance, a person with a leg amputation may find it very difficult to move around in a building with only stairs.

A mental health disability is a broad term used to describe the limitations that a person may experience due to mental health-related challenges. This often arises when symptoms of a condition, such as ADHD, make it hard for us to complete everyday tasks. 

For example, due to the symptoms, you may find it difficult to complete your coursework or a project you started 6 months ago.

Is ADHD a Mental Health Disability?  

Yes, ADHD is a mental health disability. 

The holy book of a mental health practitioner is often recognized as the Diagnostic Statistical Manual. As we flip through the pages of the manual, we come across the broad category of neurodevelopmental disorders. To understand these conditions, consider that our brains have blueprints that help us control our thoughts and behaviors. 

Sometimes the blueprints can get mixed up, leading to difficulties in brain function, and as a consequence, it can cause difficulties in your social, emotional, and cognitive functioning. 

We also recognize that ADHD is not a behavioral choice. Yes, it is essential to note that people with ADHD are not lazy! It is also not a result of parenting or habits that children grow up with. By definition, ADHD often begins in childhood.

Why is ADHD considered a Mental Health Disorder?

ADHD is considered a mental health disorder since it can significantly affect a person’s thinking, mood, and behavior. Mental health professionals also recognize it and can be diagnosed based on criteria mentioned in the DSM. 

Unfortunately, ADHD can also co-exist with other conditions. An individual who finds it difficult to maintain and sustain work may also experience anxiety. If their symptoms go unmanaged, they may think they are a ‘failure’ and can’t do anything right. This may further make their anxiety worse.

Overall, as a mental health disorder, it can seep into various aspects of our lives and cause difficulties. This helps us recognize and leverage the unique strengths an individual with ADHD may possess.

Is ADHD a learning disability or a mental illness?

With so much information flooding our brains, how does one deal with all the information?

More importantly, how does an ADHD brain respond to that information compared to a non-ADHD brain?

By learning whether ADHD is a mental health disability or a learning disability, we can learn to appreciate the rich inner world of someone with ADHD. 

While there has been confusion in the mental health community, and some may regard ADHD as a learning disability, this is not the case. Learning disabilities are associated with aspects of learning. 

How can ADHD Impact Learning?

Research has found that the brains of people with ADHD can work differently. This includes the part of the brain that helps with things like attention, organizing thoughts or actions, and even stopping, and waiting before doing things.

As you may notice, all of these functions are part of what we engage in every day, whether it’s preparing for a meeting, or paying attention in a class.

While ADHD can impact traditional ways of learning, individuals with ADHD often learn differently. A quote that helps me understand how the ADHD mind learns and processes information is:

‘People with ADHD often have a special feel for life, a way of seeing right into the heart of matters, while others may have to reason their way methodically.’ - Edward M. Hallowell

Relationship between ADHD and Learning Disability

ADHD can impact how a person learns. Some individuals with ADHD can also have a learning disability. People with learning disabilities can find reading, writing, learning, or even understanding numbers difficult. 

A person with ADHD may put in all their hours to direct a drama if that’s what they like, but they find it incredibly boring and monotonous to read a one-page article. 

One major overlap between ADHD and learning disabilities is that they affect our executive functions. This is a fancy term to describe all the brain functions that allow us to learn, remember, and retain.

4 Facts Of ADHD & Learning

  1. ADHD can impact learning but is not a learning disability.
  2. Not everyone with ADHD will experience difficulties in learning.
  3. Individuals with ADHD can learn things in their own way.
  4. People with learning disabilities and ADHD share difficulties with executive functions.

Neurodiversity Perspective- Is ADHD really a mental disorder?

ADHD is considered a neurodevelopmental condition. The symptoms associated with this condition result from the brain developing differently through key stages of development. This means that a child’s brain development has not happened in the typical way. 

This may differ from mental disorders, in which a person experiences their thoughts, actions, and behaviors as different from their ‘normal self’. However, this may not be true for neurodevelopmental conditions. 

Unfortunately, many aspects of our society (for example, education and work) are based on neurotypical functioning. Neurodiversity, on the other hand, recognizes that not everyone’s brain is the same. This approach suggests that neurological differences in people with ADHD are variations of the human brain and not defects that need to be ‘fixed.’

Does ADHD cause Performance Anxiety?

While it may not cause difficulties in performance, individuals with ADHD can experience performance anxiety. This anxiety often stems from the fear of not doing well during a performance. We recognize that ADHD can cause difficulties in remembering, processing things, and exhaustion. This can make a person feel overwhelmed and disappointed in their abilities. 

Another area where we may notice difficulties is test-taking. Individuals with ADHD may expend their mental resources on tasks that are not related to the test, leading to more worries and anxiety. 

Struggles in academics, work, and social settings may lead to fear of rejection and failure, which may further heighten performance anxiety.

ADHD cause performance anxiety- person feeling anxiety induced by documents work

#6 Myths & Stereotypes Surrounding ADHD in 2024

It’s 2024, and we have taken various steps towards understanding ADHD and how it can impact us. 

Myth 1: People with ADHD are lazy and, hence, can’t focus on things

Fact: The difficulties in focus are not a choice, but challenges that stem from variations in the brain. Some children with ADHD may experience hyperfocus. This occurs when they become intensely focused on an experience, to the exclusion of other things.

Myth 2: Children with ADHD outgrow it

Fact: Only 10% of children with ADHD outgrow the symptoms of ADHD as adults (Sibley et al). It is also possible that the symptoms exist, but they manifest differently.

Myth 3: Only boys have ADHD

Fact: While it is true that more boys are diagnosed than girls, it doesn’t mean that girls can’t have ADHD. Additionally, the symptoms in boys and girls may not be the same. For instance, some girls may appear to ‘daydream’ more than being hyperactive. This bias may lead to an underdiagnosis of ADHD in girls.

Myth 4: ADHD is a new fad and a new social-media lingo!

Fact: ADHD is not a fad and has been recognized as a complex and serious mental health condition since the 1990s. While social media, plays a role in helping people understand the condition, it is not a lingo!

Myth 5: ADHD is an outcome of poor parenting

Fact: ADHD is caused by biological and neurological factors, not by poor parenting. While parenting is an important protective factor for children, it can’t cause a condition.

Myth 6: Your child is naughty, they’ll grow out of it!

Fact: Children with ADHD are often stigmatized as being naughty, but we forget that they are experiencing an inner chaotic world. Additionally, adults may continue to be unaware of their condition since they don’t receive support that can help manage their symptoms.

How is ADHD diagnosed?

That’s why it becomes even more important not to self-diagnose and reach out to a mental health professional. ADHD Diagnosis often involves a comprehensive process.

  • The initial screening of a child may be done by a pediatrician or psychiatrist. They may ask questions to the child’s family, teachers, and others to gather information about their functioning. They may evaluate the child’s symptoms according to the criteria established in DSM.
  • They may use rating scales or behavioral checklists to evaluate the severity of the ADHD symptoms. Some of these are the ADHD rating scale and the Vanderbilt Assessment Scale (behavioral checklist). 
  • The clinician will consider cultural and contextual factors in interpreting the results of these scales.
  1. Therapy

For children, ADHD therapy can help them improve their self-control and organizational skills. They may introduce them to mindfulness practices, which can improve memory and focus.

The therapist will also provide the parents with tips that can help children manage their energy levels and introduce a routine. Additionally, children may also learn emotional skills, such as learning to name their emotions.

2. Medication

Since ADHD has biological underpinnings, medication can be an important part of the treatment. Research has identified that there are certain neurotransmitters ( or chemical messengers ) in our brains that may be affected by ADHD. While therapy can help in skill building, medication can help in regulating neurotransmitters. 

Since ADHD is a chronic condition, it may not entirely go away, rather, the symptoms can be managed over a period of time., Children who receive early professional support learn how to organize their lives and succeed in all their endeavors.

Conclusion

Not everyone with ADHD experiences the same difficulties. With the right professional support, one can make sense of ADHD. In addition to the treatment recommended by mental health professionals, one can also take active steps to support themselves. 

Taking breaks and doing things at their pace, eating healthy meals, ensuring rest, and exercising can be very helpful! 

At Mave Health, we can help you connect to a mental health professional who can help you understand ADHD, and tailor a treatment plan that best meets your needs. Remember that ADHD can be managed, especially if you seek early treatment!

References

American Psychiatric Association. (2021). What Is Specific Learning Disorder? 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, August 9). Treatment of ADHD. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

CDC. (2020). Disability and health overview | CDC. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Curatolo, P., D’Agati, E., & Moavero, R. (2010). The neurobiological basis of ADHD. Italian Journal of Pediatrics, 36(1), 79. 

Hayman, V., & Fernandez, T. V. (2018). Genetic Insights Into ADHD Biology. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 9

Sibley, M. H., Arnold, L. E., Swanson, J. M., Hechtman, L. T., Kennedy, T. M., Owens, E., Molina, B. S. G., Jensen, P. S., Hinshaw, S. P., Roy, A., Chronis-Tuscano, A., Newcorn, J. H., & Rohde, L. A. (2021). Variable patterns of remission from ADHD in the multimodal treatment study of ADHD. American Journal of Psychiatry, 179(2), 142–151. 

Langdon, P. E., Alexander, R., & O’Hara, J. (2020). Highlights of this issue. British Journal of Psychiatry, 218(1), A3–A3. 

Gaidamowicz, R., Deksnytė, A., Palinauskaitė, K., Aranauskas, R., Kasiulevičius, V., Šapoka, V., & Aranauskas, L. (2018). ADHD - the scourge of the twenty-first-century? Psychiatria Polska, 52(2), 287–307. 

Mehta, T. R., Monegro, A., Nene, Y., Fayyaz, M., & Bollu, P. C. (2019). Neurobiology of ADHD: A Review. Current Developmental Disorders Reports, 6(4), 235–240. 

Venkata, J., & Panicker, A. (2013). Prevalence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in primary school children. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 55(4), 338. 

ADHD – Learning Disabilities Association of America. (n.d.).  

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Mave
Clinical Psychologist