Mental Health Diagnoses
Through a Classist Lens

ADHD MedsMany people believe that you’re born with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). As a person who has been diagnosed with ADHD myself and treated with Ritalin for years, I started doubting whether ADHD is really a biological-neurological disorder.

For those who don’t know the disease, people suffering from this disorder have difficulty with memory and concentration, including not losing things (they have attention limitations). They are known to be hyper-energetic, talking loudly and moving around constantly.

Some See Bad Behavior Instead Fewer Advantages

As a preschool kid I had a hard time concentrating, and as such was tested by psychiatrists and finally given Ritalin. However, no one looked for the actual reason I was so easily distracted. But I had two teachers who were enormously negative toward me. Because I couldn’t see well (I needed glasses which we could not afford), I was slower in many of the things they asked me to do. Thus, they concluded that I must have been “born less smart,” and they began treating me differently from other kids. Later on, I got my glasses but I also took Ritalin, which made me quiet — just as the teacher liked it.

Whenever my Ritalin stopped working, I was always extremely energetic. This is the normal rebound effect that you have with Ritalin. During the time you take it you feel very positive, but you are less active.

Because you feel positive, you can more easily withstand the negative comments a teacher gives you, and you are able to concentrate. Also after I started taking the medication, the teacher stopped giving the negative comments that led to the inattention in the first place.

Aggression Begets Aggression

If the teacher had handled her negative response to me correctly in the first place, didn’t tear apart my papers in front of the class (this actually happened!) when I wrote something too large, and didn’t make only me write the same sentence 1,000 times as a punishment for something other kids did but got to the swimming pool, then I wouldn’t have needed Ritalin in the first place to feel positive.

There are many kids and even grownups like me who have been in the same situation. It starts with being randomly bullied for being slow or bad at something [especially for people with limited class privilege]. Then the victim is offended over and over again, and finally reacts. Those bullying them finally conclude that the kid or grownup must be inferior.

At that moment the one being perceived inferior starts to doubt him or herself and loses interest – and attention. After which Ritalin is prescribed to “help” him or her. And when the Ritalin stops working for him or her and the person reverts to being overly active, it’s assumed that he or she indeed had ADHD in the first place.

I believe that ADHD is a socially engineered disorder. (And there are mental health professionals who agree.)[i] Some people are treated as inferior for some strange reason, because of class or race. Being treated differently or badly – being discriminated against – can lead to ADHD.

It takes quite a long time to get Ritalin out of your system (for me it took months after using it for years) but a long time for it to work if you begin taking it again. So many people keep taking it for years, given that the ricochet effect makes you extremely active and loud for a while after you stop. This makes you a target for bullies once again. And the vicious cycle continues.

The Cure

So, in my opinion, Ritalin doesn’t heal ADHD, but it helps you behave in ways that make others more comfortable around you. Really, only one thing really heals, and that is stopping classism, racism and discrimination of all kinds.

[i] Marilyn Wedge Ph.D., Why French Kids Don’t Have ADHD, Psychology Today, March 8, 2012:

2 Responses

  1. Johanna

    There’s actually a school in Albany, NY based on your premise. They require kids who attend to be off all such medication.
    Teaching the restless : one school’s remarkable no-Ritalin approach to helping children learn and succeed
    Mercogliano, Chris.

  2. E

    We need to discuss how oppression influences how we categorize each other’s behavior and experiences with mental health care.

    However, I began taking stimulation medication at twenty. I was raised poor, and did not have access to the mental health care I would have benefited from; including diagnosis and treatment of ADHD. In addition, children designated female are less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD because the inattention manifestation is more frequent.

    As an adult, I was consistently failing at school and work, no matter how hard I tried, due to impulsive comments, careless mistakes (forgetting to do minor things), and difficulty sustaining attention for the passions I had. I was attending somewhere that was very positive towards me – I had always been intellectually affirmed and was deeply involved in community organizing – and I still couldn’t make it work. I almost lost my job and place in school and, had I waited a week longer to begin medication, might have. Vyvanse saved my life.

    By implying that ADHD doesn’t exist, that any mental illness doesn’t exist, and that medication is always or often unnecessary, you erase the experiences of people with disabilities, blame them (if you just didn’t think you were inferior!), and make it more difficult for us to access the healthcare that we need – that is already harder because of our class status. It – this post – is ableist and not OK. Plain and simple. This is what people with disabilities deal with all the time.

    We need to be able to talk about the impact of classicism on mental health, including your experiences, without screwing over people with disabilities. Your experiences are your own and they are important to examine, but you do not have the right to invalidate our own because of them.

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