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Is ADHD a Mental Illness?

By Ellen Braaten, PhD

Question: My daughter was recently diagnosed with ADHD. Another parent told me that ADHD is considered a mental illness! Is that accurate?

Answer:

Technically, yes. ADHD is a mental illness. But it’s a complex topic that can leave some parents confused or upset.

Mental illness is a very broad term. It refers to any type of condition that affects a person’s behavior, mood or thinking. That can cover everything from mild anxiety to severe depression or bipolar disorder. It also includes ADHD (also known as ADD).

The three main symptoms of ADHD are hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention. All of these impact behavior, mood and thinking. That’s why ADHD meets the criteria for mental illness.

In reality, few practitioners use the words “mental illness” to describe kids with ADHD. They tend to refer to it as a “behavior disorder.” Some might even refer to it as a learning difference that can affect all areas of learning.

So ADHD may technically fall under the umbrella of mental illness. But you’ll rarely hear it described in those terms.

Still, for some parents, the idea that their child has a mental disorder is tough to absorb. They may worry that their child will be stigmatized. Mental illness is actually more common than many people realize—even in kids. In fact, about 20 percent of kids in America will be diagnosed with a mental disorder.

Mental illnesses are health issues. Heredity, brain chemistry, stress and environmental factors all can play a role. We’re still learning about how the brain and body chemistry influence behavior. And the more we learn, the more stigma around mental illness will decrease.

When parents are concerned about labels, I tell them that the terms people may use for ADHD don’t really matter. The important thing is getting the right help for their child. With support, kids with ADHD can be just as successful as kids who don’t face those challenges.

If you’ve just found out your child has ADHD, there are steps you can take. Working with your child’s doctor and the school, you can come up with a plan that addresses your child’s specific needs.


Get information about treatment for ADHD. Learn about accommodations at school that can support your child. And discover strategies you can use to help your child at home.

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  • Facebook
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  • Text Message
  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom