Is ADHD a Mental Illness? Understanding the Symptoms of ADHD

Is ADHD a mental illness, disability, or both? While ADHD is not a mental illness in the traditional sense, it is considered a mental health disorder.

Is ADHD a Mental Illness?

The American Psychiatric Association says that mental health problems are treatable illnesses that cause big changes in how someone feels, thinks, acts, or a mix of these, according to the association. These situations can make people unhappy and affect their relationships, work, and social life.

Even the American Psychiatric Association calls ADHD a disorder, even though it is a mental health issue. These terms sometimes refer to the same thing in a clinical setting. This means that ADHD can be considered both a mental health illness and a disorder.

Though there are many ways to group mental health problems, some people prefer the word “disorder” because they think it is less stigmatizing than “illness.” It is vital to be aware that having a mental disease, a mental disorder, or ADHD does not make you less valuable.

The Importance of Defining ADHD

The definitions we use to discuss mental health are critical because they can have a significant effect. A lot of healthcare definitions have a terrible reputation, especially ones that have to do with mental health.

While experts use words like “disorder” and “illness” to diagnose and treat conditions, people can choose the words that make them feel most comfortable when discussing their health.

Adequate attention to one’s mental health is fundamental to maintaining overall health. Whether the problem is psychological or physical, it doesn’t mean that the person is weak or that they are to blame.

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Wondering if you or someone you know might be dealing with ADHD? You’re not alone, and there’s a way to find out. We’ve developed a helpful ADHD test to provide insights and get you started on understanding your mental health.

Is Mental Illness and Mental Disorder Different?

The terms “mental illness,” “mental disorder,” and “mental health conditions” are commonly interchanged with one another because of the lack of consensus surrounding the definitions of these terms. These are synonymous in the eyes of NAMI, and there is no universally accepted definition of mental illness.

Patients struggling with mental health issues can choose whichever phrase feels most appropriate to them, but from a clinical perspective, they all mean the same thing.

The language and criteria used for diagnosing mental health issues in the United States are laid out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). By setting uniform criteria, we may avoid arbitrary or subjective evaluations and ensure that only the most effective methods are used. The DSM-5’s clinical criteria give a formal framework for diagnosis and understanding, but it’s crucial to remember that mental health terminology might differ.

Is ADHD a Disability or Mental Illness?

People with ADHD are more likely to have a neurodevelopmental problem than a mental illness or disability. It’s a mental health problem, but it’s not the same as a mental illness like depression or anxiety disorder. ADHD causes issues with paying attention, being hyperactive, and acting without thinking. It usually starts in childhood. In the usual sense, it’s not a disability in the same way that physical or cognitive impairments are. However, it can make life more complicated in some ways.

In some cases, though, people with severe ADHD symptoms that make it very hard for them to go about their daily lives may be able to get accommodations or disability services at school or work. Whether ADHD is seen as a disability relies on the rules and definitions used in the law and schools.

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the impact of ADHD on an individual's functioning can sometimes qualify it as a disability in specific contexts.
The impact of ADHD on an individual’s functioning can sometimes qualify it as a disability in specific contexts.

What are the Symptoms of ADHD?

ADHD, or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, manifests with various symptoms that can be categorized into two main types: inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity. Here are the common symptoms associated with each type:

Inattentive Symptoms:

  1. Difficulty sustaining attention in tasks or play activities.
  2. Frequent careless mistakes in schoolwork or other activities.
  3. Difficulty organizing tasks and activities.
  4. Avoiding or being reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort.
  5. Frequently losing items necessary for tasks and activities.
  6. Easily distracted by extraneous stimuli.
  7. Forgetfulness in daily activities.

Hyperactivity-Impulsivity Symptoms:

  1. Fidgeting or tapping hands or feet.
  2. Inability to remain seated when expected.
  3. Running or climbing in inappropriate situations.
  4. Inability to play or engage in activities quietly.
  5. Talking excessively.
  6. Interrupting or intruding on others’ conversations or games.
  7. Inability to wait one’s turn.
  8. Blurting out answers before questions have been completed.

To receive a diagnosis of ADHD, an individual should exhibit at least six symptoms from either the inattentive or hyperactivity-impulsivity category. These symptoms must persist for at least six months, be developmentally inappropriate, and cause impairment in social, academic, or occupational functioning.

What Causes ADHD?

Researchers are still trying to figure out what exactly causes ADHD. There is information that points to several different factors, but no single cause can be proven. People think that genes may play a part in ADHD, but no one gene or set of genes is the only reason. People who have family members with ADHD are more likely to have the disorder.

Studies have also shown that kids with ADHD and kids without the problem have different brain structures and levels of activity. Some of these differences are smaller amounts of grey and white matter and changes in which parts of the brain are active during different tasks. The frontal lobes, caudate nucleus, and cerebellar vermis are some of the most essential parts of the brain that ADHD influences.

Besides genetic and neurological factors, ADHD has been linked to several non-genetic factors as well. Some of these are low birth weight, early birth, being exposed to toxins like alcohol, smoke, or lead while pregnant, and a mother being under a lot of stress while pregnant. ADHD is a complicated disorder with many causes. More study is needed to understand where it comes from and how it develops fully.

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How is ADHD Treated?

While there is no cure for ADHD, currently available treatments may reduce symptoms and improve functioning. Treatments include medication, psychotherapy, education or training, or a combination of treatments.


For many people, ADHD medications reduce hyperactivity and impulsivity and improve their ability to focus, work, and learn. Sometimes, several medications or dosages must be tried before finding the right one that works for a particular person. Anyone taking medications must be monitored closely by their prescribing doctor.

  • Stimulants. The most common medication used for treating ADHD is a “stimulant.” Although it may seem unusual to treat ADHD with a medication considered a stimulant, it works by increasing the brain chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine, which play essential roles in thinking and attention. Under medical supervision, stimulant medications are considered safe. However, like all medications, they can have side effects, especially when misused or taken more than the prescribed dose, and require an individual’s healthcare provider to monitor how they may react to the medication.
  • Non-stimulants. A few other ADHD medications are non-stimulants. These medications take longer to start working than stimulants but can also improve focus, attention, and impulsivity in a person with ADHD. Doctors may prescribe a non-stimulant when:
    • A person has bothersome side effects from stimulants.
    • When a stimulant is not effective.
    • Or in combination with a stimulant to increase the effectiveness.

Doctors and patients can work together to find the best medication, dose, or medication combination.

Psychotherapy and Psychosocial Interventions

Several specific psychosocial interventions have been shown to help individuals with ADHD and their families manage symptoms and improve everyday functioning.

  • Behavioral therapy is a type of psychotherapy that aims to help people change their behavior. It might involve practical assistance, such as help organizing tasks, completing work, or working through emotionally difficult events. Behavioral therapy also teaches a person how to:
    • Monitor their behavior.
    • Give oneself praise or rewards for acting in a desired way, such as controlling anger or thinking before acting.

Parents, teachers or bosses, and family members can also give feedback on specific behaviors and help establish clear rules, chore lists, and structured routines to help people control their behavior. Therapists may also teach individuals with ADHD social skills, such as how to wait their turn, share things, ask for help, or respond to challenges. Learning to read facial expressions and the tone of voice in others and how to respond appropriately can also be part of social skills training.

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy helps one learn to be aware and accepting of one’s thoughts and feelings to improve focus and concentration. The therapist also encourages the person with ADHD to adjust to the life changes that come with treatment, such as thinking before acting or resisting the urge to take unnecessary risks.
  • Family and marital therapy can help family members and spouses find productive ways to handle disruptive behaviors, encourage behavior changes, and improve interactions with the person with ADHD.
  • Stress management techniques can benefit you and your loved ones with ADHD by increasing their ability to deal with frustration so they can respond calmly to their loved one’s behavior.
  • Support groups can help parents and families connect with others with similar problems and concerns. Groups often meet regularly to share frustrations and successes, exchange information about recommended specialists and strategies, and talk with experts.

Individuals diagnosed with ADHD might struggle with behavioral issues or their performance in school or work. Even more concerning, the risk-taking tendencies associated with ADHD can lead some to use drugs or alcohol, leading to dependency and substance abuse. 

We Level Up FL offers an ADHD treatment program at our mental health treatment center in Florida. Here, clients participate in clinical and experiential therapies as part of our comprehensive curriculum. If your loved one is struggling with their ADHD diag

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