Is Adult ADHD a "Mental Illness?"

July 7, 2014 Elizabeth Prager

I went to the worst doctor all time a few months ago because I was running out of my medication for my adult attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and couldn't see my regular doctor up in Baltimore. When I was brought to his office by his admin, he didn't get up from his chair to greet me and he was on his cell phone. Once off his cell phone, he said his name (forgetting to mention how lovely it was to meet me) and then had me tell him why I was there. At one point, he asked me: "Does your wife buy into your mental illness?"

How do we define mental illness? Is ADHD a learning disability? Is attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder a mental illness?

A-what? What did you say? Does my wife - what?

The cat above shows my facial expression in that moment perfectly. Shocked. Somewhat awed. Aghast. There are any number of icky adjectives I can put here to help you understand how uncomfortable and how intensely angry this question made me feel.

Is Adult ADHD a Mental Illness?

Issue number one was the idea that my diagnosis is something my wife needs to buy into. My adult ADHD is a clinical diagnosis that was made over 10 years ago by a healthcare professional -- and it has been confirmed time and time again. My wife knows and loves me. That's the end of the story on that front.

The second issue? The fact that this "doctor" (yes, he is an actual medical doctor, but I use the quotes to show how much I dislike and lack respect for him) called my adult ADHD a mental illness. Technically, yes, adult ADHD is indeed a mental illness, as defined by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. On their website, they state: "A mental illness is a medical condition that disrupts a person's thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning." I would completely agree that how adult ADHD affects my life fits under this umbrella definition.

How do we Categorize Adult ADHD

Does that mean that this is necessarily the correct term? I am a big, annoying, bothersome, semantic-loving fool. I annoy the heck out of my best pal with the difference between the words want versus need, etc. I firmly believe that a person recently diagnosed is not a cancer victim, but a cancer survivor. My history teacher my junior year of high school forced into my head the fact that words have meaning and I know this to be true. That being said, adult ADHD does not feel like a "mental illness."

So, what to call it? It's not a learning disability. Our ability to learn is not affected one iota by this disorder, as far as the definition of learning goes (regardless of our ability to sit still or focus - actual learning is unimpaired). I really like what Russell Barkley says about ADHD. It's a performance disorder. We know what to do, because we have learned well what to do. It is our ability to recall the information correctly and apply it to a given situation correctly that we find difficult. That doesn't make us ill; that makes us poor performers. I think it's time for a new category and that category should be something along the lines of performance disorders.

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APA Reference
Prager, E. (2014, July 7). Is Adult ADHD a "Mental Illness?", HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 22 from

Author: Elizabeth Prager

Dr. Michelle King
July, 11 2014 at 6:25 pm

Now that you've clearly established in your article your obvious distaste for the healthcare professional and possibly healthcare professionals in general, who was able to evaluate you for likely a controlled substance, when it was your responsibility to maintain that prescription (and not his responsibility), my question is: did the physician refill your prescription? This is entirely unclear in this writing, although this physician seems to be the main point.
This article is entitled “Is adult ADHD a mental illness?” however this writing initiates with a diatribe against a physician who was willing to evaluate you in a city that is in a different location from your original prescription, and he took on the high liability for your medication; again a likely controlled substance that requires a DEA license; yet you are broadcasting a harshly judging opinion of this professional in an unprofessional manner, and the discussion in this public writing is not related to your actual prescription renewal, yet only focuses on your own discomfort; as opposed to a more appropriate discourse of the actual medical risk and legal accountability that was placed upon him due to your irresponsibility regarding the management of a medication, prescribed by a different doctor.
The photo of a cat has absolutely nothing to do with either the title nor with the diatribe within this article, and is merely present for its shock value, and one case in point.
Please, in the future, guard your public writings, your words and actions with respect to your illness more carefully. Doctor bashing is becoming a bit tiresome, does not further the physician-patient relationship, seems a bit self-serving, and it is still vague as to whether this physician assisted you in the original endeavor for which you sought his aid.
Did he renew your needed medication, for which you were 'running out' due to your own negligence?
Thank you and sincerely.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Elizabeth Prager
August, 30 2014 at 12:12 pm

Hello Michelle,
The doctor did indeed renew my prescription.
As a future healthcare professional, please know that I do not have a general distaste for other healthcare professionals. What I take issue with is how I was treated by this particular doctor. Questioning the diagnosis I have had for over 10 years, whether my wife buys into it (his words, not mine) and, in general, making little eye contact and not shaking my hand - these were all things I found quite unprofessional on the part of this psychiatrist.
Perhaps I should write an article about the doctors who have furthered my healing with this diagnosis to make things seem more even, but "doctor bashing", as you say, is necessary. If patients do not hold doctors to a higher standard by discussing the issues, how will things change? I could certainly talk to my best pals about it, but it seems more important to discuss these things openly.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

July, 5 2021 at 8:42 am

For someone with "Dr" as their title should know that the way the "Doctor" in the described situation handled the request was absolutely unprofessional. How should the consent of a spouse be acceptable in a patient's treatment?? As someone who has had and still fights to be taken seriously for medical treatment, this is truly horrendous. I myself am on Effexor, which if you truly know your stuff, can cause withdrawals similar to opioid addiction, patients who discontinue are advosed to take Paxil to reduce the severity of withdrawals, which can lead of death in the worst circumstances. I've had withdrawals occasionally when I forget One Single Pill, I wouldn't wish it upon my worst enemy. It is hell.
Failure to refill die to negligence? Yeah, I've had doctors move and no one has ever been this incompetent.
This doctor deserves to lose his license, and your opinion makes me question your validity. Do us all a favor and burn your license. Maybe with your attitude, Michelle.

July, 11 2014 at 2:08 pm

My conception of it is that ADHD is a learning disability. The original conception of it was that it was a type of mild brain dysfunction. But ADHD is used so broadly these days, I am actually not sure what it means. If it is a mental illness, it is a good thing from an insurance perspective- as most health insurance policies do not cover diagnosis or treatment of learning disabilities, only illnesses. So to play the game, and get your psychiatrist and medication paid for- call it an illness.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Elizabeth Prager
August, 30 2014 at 12:01 pm

Hello Emily,
ADHD doesn't fall under the umbrella of learning disability. It's categorized as a mental illness, though I do take issue with the word illness. I think it's is because of the stigma attached to illness. The word makes me feel like because I have Adult ADHD and it is a "mental illness" then that means I'm sick. Logically, I know I'm simply me and that I'm not sick; my brain just works differently. Chrisa, I think this should address your question as well. To me, words have a great deal of meaning and having Adult ADHD, like I said, doesn't mean I'm sick.

July, 11 2014 at 10:20 am

Curious - why did you out the term mental illness in quotations, like you did doctor? Is it because you have the same distain for the term as you did the doctor? It seems strange to me that, on a site devoted to discussing mental illness and mental health, you would have that reaction.
By NAMI's definition, seizure disorders are mental illness. So is autism and Down's Syndrome. If a mental illness is some type of organic brain disorder, aren't they truly all mental illnesses? Isn't ADHD one as well? If we classified them all as organic brain disorders, maybe we could reduce the stigma identified with mental illness. And maybe you wouldn't feel compelled to disassociate yourself from that stigma by putting the term in quotations.

July, 11 2014 at 5:03 am

Why is it that this system which insists that you stay compliant with your meds makes it next to impossible to get a prescription refill when something out of the ordinary happens? No wonder many choose to ditch the meds and ultimately end up worse if not dead or in jail. I have been on the same meds since 2000, that is 14 years,168 months, over 5,110 days. I had a mental breakdown earlier this year. My psychiatrist moved to MT and was unavailable to write refills in CO. My family moved me back home. My original psychiatrist retired in the eight years I was away. I tried (as suggested by psychiatrist who moved to MT) to enter an IOP. In their infinite stupidity, after a month of treatment, they told me this was not the place for me, but not to worry about refills because their psychiatrist whom I had seen three times would bridge the gap while I found a new psychiatrist. Within two weeks, when I needed a refill, the less than lady doc told me she would not refill my meds because "I was not her patient" but that I could drop my Lithium without medical supervision. How much more irresponsible can a doctor be?!
During the past week and a half I have tried to get someone to help me with a refill. I contacted my doctor in MT and my original doctor, neither responded. I called the doctor at the IOP again, she ignored me. I jumped through the hoops at the local Mental Health Office only to be told to call at 8am for a same day appointment. When I did today, they told me they were out of appointments at the office I had visited for my intake and would not give me an appointment at either of their two satellite offices regardless of my situation because their policy is to keep psychiatric and therapy appointments at the same location. What idiotic policy in the age of technology! We email and video conference all the time, yet the Mental Health office is incapable of managing three offices as one?
So I'm out of meds and quite angry. I want to take my meds, I prefer the way I feel on my meds, I don't like going through a manic episode, yet the doctors and the system make it so that it is easier for a patient to give up their meds and get worse than to help them stay compliant with their meds. Whatever happened to the Hippocratic Oath these medical professionals took to do no harm?
Someone please enlighten me because I am at my wits end and may just snap.

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