ADHD is Not a Learning Disability

5 min read

ADHD is a mental illness.

You may not agree, and I could hardly blame you. It’s not like you ever see attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) classed alongside major depression (MDD), post-traumatic stress (PTSD), generalized anxiety (GAD), bipolar, borderline personality (BPD), or schizophrenia. You know, the real mental illnesses.

Maybe you think that’s because it’s not a mental illness; it’s a learning disability. It’s not, though. Not according to the Learning Disabilities Association of America or the National Institute of Mental Health or the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (p. 21). You can read more about ADHD not being a learning disability here or here or here or here.

I’m not saying mental illness and learning disabilities can’t be related or equally present; I’m just saying they aren’t the same thing. If you want to know more about learning disabilities, you can do so here.

***Full disclosure checkpoint***

I’m not a mental health professional. SuRpRiSe. I’m just a regular old person presenting an argument based on personal research and experience with adult ADHD (or adult ADD). You have the prerogative to deny my claims and dismiss this post. But before you do, I hope you’ll check out some of the sources I’ve linked because you don’t have the prerogative to dismiss science.

What is mental illness?

According to the American Psychiatric Association, the term mental illness “refers collectively to all diagnosable mental disorders – health conditions, involving

  • Significant changes in thinking, emotion and/or behavior
  • Distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.” [1]

The Mayo Clinic describes adult-ADHD as a “mental health disorder that includes a combination of persistent problems such as difficulty paying attention, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior…[and] can lead to unstable relationships, poor work or school performance, low self-esteem, and other problems.” [2]

Adult-ADHD is a mental illness.

Trigger warning: I acknowledge that labels and classifications – especially, those pertaining to mental health or mental-not-so-healthy – are useful to some and not so useful to others. If you’ve been diagnosed with ADHD and the idea of it being considered a mental illness is triggering to you, don’t read past this paragraph. I’m not trying to upset you or convince you to think about your condition in a certain way. Obviously, how you do or don’t define yourself and your experience is between you and your doctor, and nothing to do with me.

For those of you still with me, hey.

Adult-ADHD is a mental illness.

So, why is there so much grey area? Why is adult-ADHD so commonly thought of as a learning disability? Why is it so rarely included in groupings of mental illness? Why is it being denied public recognition as one of the big crazies?

Why.

I don’t actually know. No one seems to know what to do with adult-ADHD.

Is it a jam, a jelly, a marmalade, or a spread???

Maybe adult-ADHD just floats in its own sphere of existence, neither mental illness nor learning disability, but simply “other health impairment.” A mental enigma.

WRONG.

Adult-ADHD is a mental illness, but for all intents and purposes, isn’t recognized as one. This is a problem because if we don’t acknowledge adult-ADHD to its full extent, then we risk dismissing and downplaying the challenges of those who live with it. You might think ADHD already gets the attention it deserves. Everyone’s heard of it. All the kids have it. All the college kids want it (well, the meds for it). Everyone has trouble focusing sometimes. We’re all a little ADHD, right?

WRONG.

This is exactly why adult-ADHD needs to be acknowledged for the mental illness it is. It’s not just a noisy kid or a scatter-brained adult. It’s a mental illness.

Adult-ADHD comes with learning challenges, but it also comes with emotional and behavioral issues, and in many cases, a nifty cohort of comorbidity. If neglected, these issues can escalate and lead to negative consequences, inability to effectively function in daily life, and exacerbate other health conditions.

Adult-ADHD requires the same amount of care and understanding as any other mental illness. It does not deserve to be treated like bipolar’s third step-cousin once removed. You know, sort of in the family, but not actually related, so you can feel okay about bumping it down to table 6.

No, no, no, no. ADHD is a mental illness as much as major depression, anxiety disorder, and bipolar.

Now, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can speak about my personal experience with adult-ADHD. And it feels a hella lot like something that causes significant changes in thinking, emotion, and/or behavior that can lead to distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.

So, what does adult-ADHD feel like?

It feels like being in a tiny room while a thousand bouncy balls shoot all around you at the speed of bullets. You’re expected to catch them all and organize them by color in ten minutes. Everyone else can do it, so why can’t you?

ADHD is sitting in a classroom while the professor explains that birds fly and fish swim, and some animals fly and swim. Should be fine, except, PLOT TWIST, the professor is speaking in tongues and writing on the board in obsolete Anglo-Saxon hieroglyphs.

ADHD is needing to return an email that requires three sentences at most, what should be a mundane, thoughtless task, but the thought of it creates such overwhelming anxiety that you put it off for days, inducing guilt and further anxiety. In many cases, the email is important, and neglecting it creates further negative consequences such as late payments or missed opportunities, and you end up hating yourself.

ADHD is being late to every appointment because your general absent-mindedness has you so paranoid about forgetting something that you’re too paralyzed to leave the house.

ADHD is having to choose between looking someone in the eye or processing what they’re saying.

ADHD is being unable to get out of bed, make breakfast, or get dressed because you forgot to refill your medication, and now your brain is deficient and improperly utilizing the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine.

ADHD is sitting down at your computer to get an hour’s worth of work done, then remembering you need to wash your hands. You may as well grab those dirty socks and toss them in the laundry on your way back.

And take those coffee mugs to the dishwasher.

Wash your hands again.

Replace the toilet paper.

Add soap to the shopping list.

Grab a drink from the fridge.

Add apples to the shopping list.

All the while, you’re desperate to sit at your desk and start your work, but you can’t because the motor inside you is driving you everywhere but where you need to go. And you’re not in control of the wheel.

Sometimes this is the bit that people struggle to understand about mental illness, the bit they can’t see. That sometimes we’re not in control of the wheel, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

How about we agree right now to stop treating adult-ADHD like the virgin daiquiri of mental illness? It’s packed full of tequila-rum and hangovers like the rest of them. So, let’s start acknowledging it for what it is.

ADHD is just a mental illness standing in front of the world, asking it to love her.

**Note: Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is another one that I think deserves some greater respect and understanding. It’s not just light switches, faucets, and meticulously organized desks.

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