Ask A Shrink: “ADHD is a Fictitious Disorder” and other Myths Perpetuated by the Web

by Kassandra Lamb

A couple of months ago, I ran my first Ask A Shrink post, and invited our readers to ask questions about psychology. Some questions I answered privately and one that I thought would be of common interest, I answered here on the blog.

But there was one question I have been putting off answering. One of my fellow authors asked how to best research mental disorders and other psychological phenomena.

computer

Computer research on Wikipedia may be fine for most things; not so good for psychology.  (photo by Jeff777BC CC-BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve put this one off because there is no easy answer to it. The first thing I would say is to be very skeptical about sources of information, especially if you are, like me, using the writer’s favorite research tool, the Internet.

We find out all kinds of cool stuff much easier than in the past. Before the World Wide Web, we writers had to find an expert in the field and either talk to them on the phone or perhaps go visit them. Now, we just Google it.

But the risk here is that there is a lot of garbage on the Web. And sometimes that garbage is so oft repeated that it begins to take on the ring of gospel.

Also, even “experts” in a certain field can hold biases. Then you factor in what sells books and magazines and builds reputations, and you’ve potentially got even more bias.

In recent years, there have been multiple posts on the Internet claiming that Dr. Leon Eisenberg, the child psychiatrist who first identified ADHD as a developmental disorder in children, “made a deathbed confession” saying that “ADHD is a prime example of a fictitious disease.”

Here’s what really happened. Seven months before the man died (hardly a deathbed confession), he was interviewed by a German journal. In that interview he made a statement that could be mistranslated and misconstrued, if taken out of context, to mean what he is being quoted as saying.

Here’s what Snopes.com says about it:

However, when one allows for the vagaries of translation from German to English and reads the statement in context, it’s clear that Dr. Eisenberg wasn’t asserting that ADHD isn’t a real disorder, but rather that he thought the influence of genetic predispositions for ADHD (rather than social/environmental risk factors) were vastly overestimated.

Having now pointed out that what multiple posters on the Web said that Dr. Eisenberg said wasn’t really what he said, I’m sure I will get some comments and maybe even some nasty emails telling me I’m wrong. That he really did say that.

Why will I get such comments and messages? Because people tend to believe what they hear first if it seems the least bit plausible (and especially if it concurs with what they already believe). Then they filter later information through that belief, discounting what doesn’t confirm it and believing what does confirm it.

There are even psychobabble terms for these tendencies: belief perseverance and confirmation bias.

So bottom line, while the Internet might be a viable place to research how to get out of a straitjacket or how to build a secret room in your house (both topics I have researched for books), it is often not a reliable source for accurate information about psychological topics.

What are reliable sources? Usually information on the websites of professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Counseling Association, and the National Association of Social Workers can be trusted.

However, even there, an individual article may be biased.

Probably the most reliable source of information on psychological disorders is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th edition (DSM-V).

DSM-V

DSM-V (photo by Yoshikia2001 CC-BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

This is published by the American Psychiatric Association, and years of scrutiny of the scientific research goes into each new edition. Committees of experts on each category of disorders meet for several years to review the most current research to determine what disorders should remain, what new ones should be included, what the diagnostic criteria should be for each disorder, etc.

The problem is that this book is written for mental health professionals, so sometimes you may need an interpreter to make sense of what it is saying. It also does not usually address causes of disorders nor treatment approaches.

Another problem is that not all psychological issues have been formulated (yet) as diagnosable disorders per se. For example, before 2013 when this fifth edition of the DSM was published, there was no diagnosis for childhood abuse or spousal battering (neither for the abuser nor the victim). In DSM-V these are still not diagnoses, but they are in there as “Other Conditions that may be a focus of Clinical Attention” (otherwise known as V codes).

So how can you be sure you have the psychology right when you’re writing a story that touches on psychological phenomena (which many stories do)?

Well, you can ask a shrink, like me. But unfortunately, we all have our human foibles as well, so we can also be biased. 😀

And now you can see why I put off answering this question!

I’d love to hear your take on this. Why do you think people are so gullible? What have you believed on the Web only to find out later it was a hoax?

If you have an Ask A Shrink question for me, include it in the comments.

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological suspense series, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

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8 thoughts on “Ask A Shrink: “ADHD is a Fictitious Disorder” and other Myths Perpetuated by the Web

  1. Jami Gold

    Fantastic post! I’ve been thinking along the lines of those confirmation bias and belief perseverance issues lately because of various blowups I’ve been seeing on social media. (In fact, my post today is about egos, and how they can be good, bad, or ugly for our publishing career. 🙂 )

    Thanks for going into the why’s and how’s behind the what’s. LOL!

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb

      Yes, they can, Alica. I’ve used one of them already in a book, and am considering another plot around another one. Of course, it helps that my protag is a psychologist so she can always set the record straight in the book. The stories that bother me are the ones based on a false belief about a psychological phenomenon that then perpetuate that falsehood.

      And my apologies for not addressing this sooner. I had a sticky note on my desk for the longest time, and finally I made myself write it! Now I’m very glad I did because it’s important info.

      Reply
  2. Shannon Esposito

    Well, I don’t know if ADD is a result of genetics or environment (probably both), but I learned the hard way that it’s a real disorder. My child almost failed third grade until I stopped resisting medication and got him help. It was like day and night, immediate results and he’s in the top 10% of his grade now. And so much happier! I don’t think I would’ve resisted for so long if I wouldn’t have read all the “opinions” online against it being a real disorder. Live and learn.

    Reply
    1. Kassandra Lamb

      I was thinking a lot about your little guy when writing this, Shannon. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to resist medication until you’re sure other approaches are not going to be sufficient. (He’s in the top 10% now. Wow!! That’s terrific.)

      What makes me sad are the parents who have been convinced that meds are the invention of the devil and resist them forever, even though their children are suffering.

      Reply
  3. Vinnie Hansen

    A phrase I heard once and really like is “the tyranny of the original idea.” It corresponds to what you’ve written about how people believe what they hear first and then hang on to that idea even in the face of contradictory information.

    Reply

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