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The Downside of an ADHD Diagnosis

For those with mild forms, the label can be worse than the disorder itself.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: iStockPhoto)

An astounding number of American children — 11 percent of all four-to-17- year-olds, according to one estimate — have been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. For those with a severe form, pinpointing the problem is a good thing, opening access to medication and special programs. But the label has a negative impact on the performance of those with milder forms.


A version of this story first appeared in the

November/December 2016 issue

of Pacific Standard.

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A study that followed a nationally representative sample of American children from kindergarten through eighth grade found that such kids, on average, scored lower in reading and math than their undiagnosed peers — children who were “cognitively, behaviorally, and demographically similar,” Jayanti Owens and Heide Jackson write in Social Science Research.

They report this “diagnostic labeling effect,” found even when the youngsters were receiving treatment, is the result of “dampened self-esteem and academic expectations.” For mild ADHD cases, the diagnosis may be worse than the disorder.