ADHD: Disempowerment By Diagnosis


“Mr. Mielke, I won’t be able to complete the assignment. I have ADHD.”

“I don’t have to copy those notes from the board; someone needs to copy them for me.”

“You can’t say ‘No’ to me; I can take the final exam in the special ed classroom.”

I’ve been a high school teacher for almost 40 years and currently teach two elective courses (psychology and sociology) to 11th and 12th graders at Culver City High School in California. My background includes a B.A. in psychology, an M.S. in counseling, and I was just a dissertation away from my PhD in clinical psychology. (I’m not sure you can ever say “just” a dissertation away!)

The three examples above illustrate how giving a diagnosis of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) can profoundly disempower students.

Each of these three students was perfectly capable of doing what the other students in class were doing: completing an assignment at home, copying notes from the board, and taking the final exam in my classroom with classmates. But in each case, they cited their ADHD “disability” as a reason to be excused from routine classroom expectations.

Have I fallen down the rabbit hole or gone through the looking glass? After all, giving a diagnosis is not meant to create a disability, is it? Why, then, does an ADHD diagnosis so often lead to what psychologists call “learned helplessness” and to the disabling belief in students that “I can’t do it”?

Let me share a few thoughts and observations about ADHD based on my academic training and those 40 years (!) of teaching.

1. There are no objective tests for ADHD.

Physical illnesses are diagnosed objectively; ADHD diagnoses are entirely subjective. My high cholesterol was diagnosed by a blood test and the torn ligament in my knee was diagnosed by an MRI, but there are no blood or imaging tests for ADHD. Not one.

Dr. Smith may give your child this diagnosis while Dr. Jones may laugh and share that he had trouble paying attention in geometry too!

2. ADHD didn’t even exist until 1989.

ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) made its debut in 1980. “Hyperactivity” was added nine years later. Prior to this, teachers understood that kids, by definition, were energetic, goofy, silly, and my favorite, “squirrelly.” In school they needed frequent breaks, recess in the morning and in the afternoon, classes in art, music and physical education, and “free time” where “kids could just act like kids.”

Now, as a school principal recently reminded me, “We need them to be on task from bell to bell.” Have we forgotten what it’s like to be a child?

3. A disorder—or just behavior that teachers don’t like?

If you track the evolution of the disorder in successive revisions of the DSM, it starts with “attention” (ADD), expands to include “hyperactivity” (ADHD), and expands yet again to include “disruptive behavior” in the new DSM V disorder “Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder” (DMDD).

Johnny won’t pay attention, he won’t sit still, and he can be disruptive. Teachers used to recognize these as normal childhood behaviors. Now they’re disorders? What’s next? Sloppy Handwriting Disorder? Tardy to Class Disorder? A recent cartoon recast bullying as Compassion Deficit Disorder!

4. Kids internalize these labels and see themselves as permanently disabled.

I’m old enough to remember when kids were said to be “going through a phase” or experiencing “growing pains.” Now my students speak of “having” ADHD in the same way any of us might speak of “having” diabetes or “having” high blood pressure.

Could there be a more disempowering message than to tell a young person that there is something permanently wrong with his or her brain? And if there is something wrong with a student’s brain, why should he or she work hard to master difficult concepts and skills? “I won’t be able to complete the assignment; I have ADHD.”

5. Isn’t it my job to engage my students?

According to Michael Corrigan, more American students are taking stimulant drugs for attention than all of the children living in Ireland! We’re living in a Mad Hatter’s world where we have chosen to change our kids’ brains with drugs rather than change what we’re doing in our schools.

As a teacher, I know that if I’m losing my students’ attention I need to change what I’m doing in class. That’s Teacher Prep #101 !

6. We pay attention to things that are important or interesting.

When I was teaching a health class years ago, I noticed that students would often drift off when we were studying the circulatory system, but when we were teaching safe sex everyone paid attention! No one had ADHD on those days!

Speaking of safe sex, I attended a workshop for teachers during the early days of the HIV epidemic and the facilitator taught in 20-minute segments broken up with short breaks. When I asked him about it, he responded that “that’s about how long people can pay attention.” If that’s how long teachers can pay attention, what about a 12-year-old boy in a math class?

7. Video Games!

Speaking of 12-year-old boys, if ADHD is a brain disorder that prevents students from concentrating, how is it possible that kids with this diagnosis will concentrate ferociously for hours and hours on video games? Are the symptoms only expressed at school? Does the disorder go into remission when kids turn on their PlayStations and Xboxes?

8. Just say “No” to drugs?

Do drugs lose the power to alter our personalities or create dependency when prescribed by a doctor and referred to as “medication?” Are stimulant drugs safe for kids? What about tolerance? Addiction? Withdrawal? Side effects? And can minors give informed consent?

26-year study by Nadine Lambert at UC Berkeley found that young people who took stimulant drugs for attention were more likely, as adults, to smoke cigarettes and use stimulant drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine.

Ritalin is not Vitamin C.

9. Do ADHD diagnoses lead to diagnoses of bipolar disorder?

Stimulant drugs create an “up/down” cycle which mimics the symptoms of bipolar disorder. As many as 20% of our children who take stimulant drugs for ADHD will “graduate” on to the more disabling and permanent adult diagnosis of bipolar disorder.

10. Could they just be tired?

Those of us who teach at high schools that start at 8:00 A.M. know how easy it is for kids to fall asleep in small, cramped, uncomfortable desks. Teenagers are terribly sleep-deprived and research confirms that tired students have real trouble with focus and concentration.

Why not start schools an hour later and replace that Ritalin prescription with a prescription for an extra hour of sleep?

11. Could they be gifted students who are bored at school?

Students who learn at a faster pace than other kids get bored in classes that are moving too slowly for them. They are easily distracted, fidget, doodle and daydream. In short, they exhibit all the “symptoms” of ADHD.

If Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein were students in American schools today, there is a good chance they would both be on stimulant drugs!

12. Could the attention problem be the attention they need and are not getting?

Peter Breggin has written about DADD (Dad Attention Deficit Disorder) and MADD (Mom Attention Deficit Disorder). Problems at home lead to problems at school. Kids experiencing a love and attention deficit at home will find it hard to focus on the Periodic Table of Elements.

13. Could this just be “boy behavior” that schools haven’t addressed?

Boys are three times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ADHD. Boys also account for the vast majority of D’s, F’s, suspensions, expulsions and dropouts.

Are boys’ brains inferior? Do they need stimulant drugs? Or might the problem lie in the structure and design of our schools which leave so many of our boys disengaged?

14. It’s your birthday!

Recent research both in Finland and at Michigan State University found that the youngest child in a class is twice as likely to get an ADHD diagnosis as the oldest child. Younger kids are more “squirrelly” than older kids? They have a tougher time settling down and focusing? What a surprise !

15. Were you a “late bloomer”?

Students are not robots that can be programmed so that they all master the multiplication tables at the same exact time. For some, the “light bulb” doesn’t go on quite as soon as we would like. But are inattention and a lack of interest evidence of a broken brain or does it simply illustrate the wide range of child development and student interests?

16. We’re #1!

American kids are 10 times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than kids in Europe and we consume 85% of the stimulant drugs prescribed to kids worldwide. What do other countries know about childhood that we don’t?

17. Do kids like being on these drugs?

Often lost in this debate about the medicalization of everyday life is the subjective experience of young people on these drugs. Students report headaches, anxiety, mood swings, and sleep disturbances. A common complaint is that they “just don’t feel like themselves” and that they look forward to “drug holidays” over the summer.

Drug holidays? Are there any other brain abnormalities that go into remission every July and August but return in September?

18. What’s our responsibility as educators?

Isn’t it time for those of us in education to reclaim our profession?

Who are the teaching and learning experts? Doctors? Drug companies? We are! And if we don’t stand up—for our students—against disempowering diagnoses and harmful drugs, who will? And if not now, when?


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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David Mielke, M.S.
David Mielke teaches Psychology and Sociology at Culver City High School (California). His academic background includes a B.A. in Psychology (Yale), an M.S. in Counseling (California State University, Los Angeles), and doctoral coursework at the California Graduate Institute. Mielke also serves as the President of the Culver City Federation of Teachers and is a Vice-President of the California Federation of Teachers.


  1. Thank you for writing this. I taught high school boys for fifteen years and never, ever ran across a student that I’d have labeled as having this. I quit teaching in 1988 when ADD was miraculously discovered out of the clear blue. Did I have difficult and challenging students in my classes? Absolutely. But I never had one student that I’d have tried to label like this. Many American classrooms are amazingly boring to say the least. Many American classrooms are not challenging. And now, in way too many classrooms across this country teachers are only teaching to the standardized tests that are given at the end of the year. I feel that this is a total waste of valuable classroom time. But we must keep students on task from bell to bell, even little kindergarteners and pre-school children. The things that we demand from students are often totally unrealistic based on their age and realistic abilities.

    I believe that this ADD and ADHD bologna was created by an American classroom system that desperately needs revamping and by drug companies and psychiatry, both of which saw a great opportunity to make lots and lots of money. The really sad thing is that our children are paying for this in more ways than one and we’re doing nothing to stop it.

    I will also state that although there are lazy teachers who really don’t won’t to really teach, most teachers are people caught in a system that cares very little for the students in the classroom, or about the teachers themselves. Many teachers buy classroom supplies out of their own pay checks and many struggle to enrich the lives of the people placed in their care. But they are struggling against a system that is chopping budgets and raising impossible demands of both teachers and students. Politics has wormed it’s way into too many school boards and too many of those boards are headed by superintendents who are toadies to the legislature at the state capitol. Why is it that when states want to cut the amount of spending that takes place in their states that they immediately go for the school system? Tell me how much sense that makes?

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    • Reduce school budgets is an excellent thing. Have you ever read Ivan Illich?

      The school is not a better institution than the psychiatric hospital: always the same disciplinary and inhuman environment.

      It is not surprising that the school collaborates with psychiatry: the same authoritarian and aristocratic blood flows in their veins.

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    • ADHD was first identified in 1902 by British pediatrician Sir George Still. He described the condition as “an abnormal defect of moral control in children.” He found that some affected children could not control their behavior in the same way a typical child would. He did note, however, that these children were still intelligent.

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  2. True Story:-

    A lady friend of mine in London took a career change in adulthood and became an assistant teacher.

    It was noticed that some of the children were very slow at school and needed special help.

    But on investigation it was discovered that a lot of these children were not getting anything to eat at home before coming to school.

    Once this problem was resolved things picked up.

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  3. Thank you, David, for your article with great questions and comments. I have a wonderful 3rd grade teacher friend who is struggling with children telling her that they cannot and will not do work because they are on “Individual Education Plans” (IEPs) due to ADHD. I see 8-year-old boy whose divorced parents are still angry at each other in my therapy practice telling me how broken his brain and how he is not smart in school, because he has ADHD. I had a 17-year-old junior girl’s parents wanting me to diagnose their daughter with ADHD so that she would not get below a B in classes and hopefully get into a college that is beyond her current abilities. I see a lot of this as problems with the schools not engaging and motivating students as some MIA readers have stated. I often help kids with their homework and much of it is online and quite boring. I see parents who are so busy having full-time careers that they just do not have the time and energy to spend with their children doing homework, playing and reading together. I see adults who are angry that they were essentially forced by their parents and the schools to take medications as children and adolescence years that they did not want and be given a diagnosis that followed them.

    I see psychiatry and certainly pharmaceutical industry both looking for short-term fix with pills that do nothing for a child’s self-esteem and negative long-term health consequences. I remember going to Cape Cod conference for a week years ago with Edward Hallowell, MD, the ADHD/ADD guru, to see what this new fad diagnosis was and thinking what a hoax diagnosis this was and how terrible to use one’s MD status to promote it. Psychiatrists need DSM diagnose in order to get paid rather well by health insurance companies. A MD/PHD said in another conference I went last fall that he is often asked to consult in schools. A boy he said was poor and had a challenging family situation. He did not think medications were the answer but admitted that he still gave ADHD medications to him, because “if I didn’t some other MD would” and the school which pays him wanted him to “fix” the boy. What kind of society are we if we do not put children’s well-being ahead of professional self-interest and greed?

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    • As a former high school teacher who now has lived experience in the wonderful psychiatric system referred to as the “mental health system” I keep asking the same question as you. “What kind of society are we if we do not put children’s well-being ahead of professional self-interest and greed?” We’d rather let entire generations of children be drugged rather than call a halt to all of this craziness. Why have doctors become so strong in our society that parents bow down to them when the first response is to drug the kids? Surely they watch the effects of these drugs on their children and yet are not willing to call a halt to any of this. I have friends who drug their kids for this fake illness and I’ve confronted them about why they allow it to go on. I’ve shared all the information with them about what a hoax this is. Their only response is to tell me, “What can we do?” I tell them that they can quit giving their kids the drugs but it does absolutely no good. It’s as if they are powerless and afraid to do the right and proper thing.

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      • I agree, Stephen, that MDs hold too much power that is unchallenged which creates the seed for unethical behaviors. It reminds me of a time when one would never confront or question a Catholic priest and we know what happened with that institution. Schools and teachers want quiet, behavior free children. Parents do not want to keep being called about their children who are having behavioral issues at school. They may not want to look at their parenting and/or their marriage issues that may be the underlying cause of the behavioral disturbance. Then we have psychiatry and pharmaceutical with their solution of pills and the false narrative of brain diseases. Perfect storm here. I see it as child abuse. If parents were giving their children marijuana or alcohol I would be filing 51A but psychiatric drugs with MD signing off is legal.

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        • I agree totally. It is child abuse.

          What have we come to when you can’t trust kids with their parents nor their schools? As a teacher I always felt that I’d been given a sacred trust to do the best for my students and to watch over their welfare and well-being as best I could. Thirty years later I still wonder what happened to some of my students and I hope that things turned out well for them.

          A few years ago I watched a movie on Netflix. I can’t remember the title of the movie but it was about our society in the future when everyone had to take a daily dose of drug to keep them from feeling their emotions and feelings and to keep them from becoming dissatisfied with the government, which controlled each and every aspect of their lives. The plot revolves around one father who doesn’t take his “drugs” or “medicine” and he’s reported to the authorities by his own child. The entire thing was shot in black and white and gray and was very dark and depressing. But I feel that this is what our society is coming to if we don’t wake up and do something about it now. We’ve got to start standing up for the children.

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  4. Good article! The author did miss one point I’d like to see added: 40-50 years of long-term studies have failed to show ANY improvement in ANY significant long-term outcome as a result of stimulant use. High school graduation, college admission, academic test scores, social skills, delinquency, substance abuse, even self esteem – NONE of these areas are improved by long-term use of stimulants, and in some studies, outcomes were WORSE for the stimulant users. These studies were largely done by mainstream psychiatrists, and these conclusions aren’t even controversial. But they are kept VERY quiet.

    It should be obvious to anyone that there is a risk involved in giving stimulant drugs to children. When we see that there is NO benefit in quality of life in ANY domain, what could possibly justify their being prescribe to these poor kids?

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    • As I stated above I’ve confronted my friends who allow their kids to be drugged with these stimulants. They act as if they’re afraid to stop the drugging and they act powerless as they shrug their shoulders and ask me what else can they do but give the drugs to their kids. It’s really crazy.

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      • Some parents get threatened by the school admin that if they don’t drug their kid they will turn them in to CPS for medical neglect. Of course, rich parents who were capable of filing a lawsuit were not intimidated in this way, but your average Joe? I’ve seen it. It’s sickening.

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        • Have you seen this story about psychiatry’s extreme measures to push their drugs, LavenderSage?

          And you are right, CPS is horrendous. This former senator was murdered for exposing CPS.

          Thank you, David, for speaking out against the ADHD fraud, and it’s massive harm of children. I’ve heard that the schools are actually given additional money for each “disabled” child they have, which functions to encourage the schools to get as many children as possible labeled. Do you know anything about that, by chance?

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          • Someone else

            You are correct about schools getting more money for each “disabled” student that they have in their systems. At least that is the case in the state where I live.

            We’re not just fighting against the psychiatric system but against many other systems too. They’re all twined together in ways that are difficult to spot or pick apart but they are not working to benefit our kids or us. I’m beginning to think that the goal is to make our society into one homogenous group of zombies who will follow orders without complaint or rebellion. And now I know that I’m sounding like some conspiracy person but all of this is beginning to worry me. At the age of 70 I’m seeing things in our society that don’t look or smell very good to me.

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          • Hi Someone Else,

            I don’t think I had heard of that case, but there are so many cases of medical kidnapping it’s unreal. I watched the video- very glad she was triumphant and that it’s a precedent on the books.

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        • Lavender

          You’re correct about this. Ordinary people don’t have the money to fight the system, which includes the schools, Department of Human Services, psychiatry, and the political hacks who stupidly back anything that the system says or pushes. But at some point all of us have to somehow make a stand against the drugging of our kids or our entire society will end up a bunch of zombies at the mercy of the large corporations who are just waiting to take over everything in this country. Since when were corporations and super pacs people too? And our wonderful Supreme Court gave us that one.

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  5. Mr. Mielke should endeavor to educate and organize teachers and parents (especially)around “ADHD,” and ask, why not similarly diagnose “teaching disabilities” which might be correctable via amphetamines as well?

    P.S. All psychiatric “diagnoses” are disempowering, not just “ADHD.”

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    • Thanks for the laugh! “ITD” – inadequate teaching disorder, characterized by restless kids, boredom and yawning in class, rebellious pranks, and kids screaming with joy as they run out of the room when they are finally allowed to escape your classroom. Treatment? Go into flower arrangement or something where you can’t hurt vulnerable children!

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  6. Having worked in public elementary schools as a speech pathologist, I applaud this essay. The last time I worked on the East Coast, in a little elementary school by the Chesapeake Bay, I sat in on a parent IEP meeting in which the preschool teacher pressured the mom to put her little boy on ADHD drugs. With tears in her eyes, the mom, from a clearly disadvantaged family, said “well, he’s only a little boy and these drugs will change his brain. I’d like to give him a little more time to be himself.” I told the principal later that the teacher pressured the mom (teachers are not supposed to do this) and she said it wasn’t the first time she’d heard it. She also told me of several parents she knew who “made up” an ADHD diagnosis to get their child on the drugs so that they could take them themselves.
    Such collusion on our innocent children by more than one oppressive systems.

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    • Mind you this was a preschool student! He was a baby!! What in the hell is a preschool teacher doing trying to get a small child under the age of fine on drugs????? It’s unbelievable. I was riding the city bus one morning when one of the passengers started talking about how her child as bi-polar and how she had to have all kinds of medicines. Another passenger asked her the age of her child and she sat there and said, “She’s two years old.” A two year old on the toxic drugs!

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      • Speaking of preschoolers, don’t ever forget little Rebecca Riley, killed by Risperdol due to overmedication by a physician accolyte of Dr. Joseph Biederman of Harvard. I think Rebeccas was three when she died.

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          • And Biederman, self-described as one step next to God, got a mere tap on the wrist from Harvard, despite pressure to fire him.
            As for Risperdol, and all the atypical antipsychotics, they shouldn’t have been given to anyone. Looking at the range and type of deaths from this class, it’s almost surprising that no pharma execs were indicted.

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