6 min read

Paying attention to ADHD– is it really just a fad?

Media fixation with ADHD caught Henna Cundill’s eye, so she decided to investigate its struggles and superpowers.
From a darkly shadowed face, a single illuminated eye stares.
Brands&People on Unsplash.

In a feat of irony, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (commonly known as ADHD) is now getting a lot of attention. For example, between 28 and 31 January The Times newspaper published one article per day about ADHD. Intrigued, I looked back over the past few months, and I found that The Times has averaged 8 to 10 articles per month which are either partly or exclusively about this topic. These range from celebrity diagnoses to handwringing over the “troubling rise” in incidents of the condition, to concerns about parents gaming the system to get their children disability payments or extra time in exams.  

With all this media hype, it is little wonder that some commentators are inclined to dismiss ADHD as a fad. Scroll through the comments beneath each article, and you will reliably find the rallying cry of, “We didn’t have ADHD in my day!” followed by the patient responses of those who try to correct this fallacy.  

While the high public profile of ADHD is new, the condition itself is not. As early as the mid-1700s a Professor of Medicine called Melchior Adam Weikard was describing patients who were “unwary, careless, and flighty” – behaving in ways governed by impulse, and showing poor skills in punctuality, accuracy, and having an inability to complete tasks, to the detriment of their mental health. His description is of its day. For example, and somewhat amusingly, Weikard (himself German, but at this point living in Russia) also described his patients as follows:  

Compared to an attentive and considerate person such a jumpy person may act like a young Frenchman does in comparison to a mature Englishman. 

Even so, Weikard did not unconsciously adopt all the prejudices and stereotypes of his context: he broke firmly with existing medical consensus when he diagnosed these patients as having a “dysregulation in cerebral fibres” – rather than attributing their difficulties to astrological misalignments or demon possession.  

By characterising ADHD as a brain-based condition, Weikard was ahead of his time, and we’ve come a long way since then. This is not the place to chart the whole biography of ADHD, suffice to say that when someone rolls their eyes and declares dismissively, “We didn’t have ADHD in my day…” – they are either over 300 years old or not talking like a mature Englishman, even if they read The Times.  

The negative side of the condition as being in a constant fight with one’s own thoughts and senses – these are doughty opponents, they always know where to find you, and they only sleep when you do. 

Another thing that is not new, despite what cynical commentators might seek to imply, is the treatment of some aspects of ADHD with medication.  

Doctors have been prescribing amphetamines to patients with ADHD since at least the 1950s. Yet now those medications are in short supply. Contrary to the media hype, fewer than 1 in 10 people with an ADHD diagnosis take prescribed medication, but for some of those who do it can be a lifeline – calming down a washing machine mind that is stuck on constant spin.  

One acquaintance of mine has taken to anxiously touring the local pharmacies, driving to neighbouring towns and villages, desperate to get her prescription filled.  

Another is passing her own tablets on to her son, whose prescribed supply ran out sooner. Sharing prescription medication is, I am duty-bound to add, an illegal practice – but it is hard to expect a parent to medicate themselves whilst seeing their own child struggle to attend school, to complete exam papers and to just generally feel (and I quote) “like a normal person.”  

People who have ADHD sometimes describe the negative side of the condition as being in a constant fight with one’s own thoughts and senses – these are doughty opponents, they always know where to find you, and they only sleep when you do.   

This is not to overlook that there are positives to ADHD too – it is often pointed out that the condition entails a degree of “superpower.” A person living with ADHD may have an incredible ability to focus on one difficult problem to the exclusion of all else, and thus solve it, perhaps devising creative solutions that elude those with a more pedestrian style of thought.  

Also, it is common for people who live with ADHD to be dynamic conversationalists, with high social intelligence and empathy, priming them for success at tasks like broadcasting and debating. Many elite athletes also live with ADHD and say that they able to strive for excellence due to their restless energy and resilience in the face of tough training regimes.  

Given the mixed bag of struggles and superpowers, there is a raging debate about whether ADHD should even be considered as pathology, or just as a neurodivergent way of being human. I suspect there is no right or wrong answer to this – for each person who lives with ADHD it depends on their own experience and how they feel it helps or hinders them to live the life they choose. Neither is it a binary choice: more than one of my own acquaintances who live with ADHD has described themselves as being in a “love-hate relationship” with their neurodivergence.   

ADHD challenges me to unfold my mind too – to become ever more aware and appreciative of the fact that there are many ways to be human. 

Neurodiversity, like any kind of diversity, challenges the way we live to together in communities, choosing or refusing to show empathy towards those who are perceived as ‘other’. There are several places in the Bible where human interconnectedness is likened to the human body – made up of many different parts, with each member dependent on the other for the wellbeing of the body as a whole. In one of his letters, St Paul wrote, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? Or if the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?” Society needs problem solvers, communicators, high achievers, even while society also needs people who can structure, plan and maintain consistency – and above all, society needs these different neurotypes to work together with a certain amount of mutual understanding and trust.  

Reflecting further on the body metaphor, Paul also wrote this: “If one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers with it.” It is estimated that about 5 per cent of people in the UK has ADHD, so it is likely that includes someone you know. The majority don’t take regular meds, but if you are connected to someone who is usually reliant on these, the next few months may be a time of particular stress and anxiety, as the current medication shortage is expected to continue into late spring. This affects not just those living with ADHD, but all of us, as we live together in our families, communities, and networks. Not everyone chooses to be open about having an ADHD diagnosis, but if they are, now might be a good time to ask them how they experience this condition, both with its positives and negatives, and how you can support them if they are managing without their usual prescription. 

The body metaphor, and Paul’s teaching around it, reminds us that diversity is no accident, God has always been attentive to those who feel divergent or far from the centre, as Jesus affirmed when he announced his ministry would be for the poor, the prisoners, the disabled and the oppressed. The psalmist too, observes that God’s attention and concern for us is so complete, that one is “…hemmed in, before and behind” – even if one strays to the very ends of the Earth, or drives to the pharmacy in the next village. Thus, while the media circus may be new, we can be sure that God has always been attentive to those with ADHD, and wider society is called to be likewise. 

Writing for The Times, Esther Walker describes ADHD as “…the health story that keeps unfolding.” Well, certainly every time I unfold my newspaper, there it is again. But ADHD challenges me to unfold my mind too – to become ever more aware and appreciative of the fact that there are many ways to be human: usually complex, sometimes difficult, often brilliant, and always interconnected.  

6 min read

The case for taking a holiday

The reasons we need to rest and re-boot.

Natalie produces and narrates The Seen & Unseen Aloud podcast. She's an Anglican minister and a trained actor.

On a beach lounger someone holds a book aloft to read.

Well, here we are, either literally or metaphorically breaking up for the summer. School’s out and the long evenings demand al-fresco dining – even in the UK where it’s far more likely than not to rain. And of course, it is time to Live Our Best Life as we chase the fantasy and book an eye-wateringly expensive holiday – to “get away from it all”.  

In my early adulthood, holidays were unquestionably lying on a sun-drenched beach with a very large pile of novels. It was escapism pure and simple. And sun worshipping. Then I went on a skiing holiday for the first time in my 30s and was amazed how refreshing it was. When you’re concentrating on not dying, hurtling at high speed down a slippery mountain, the regular patterns of thought are left behind; there is simply no headspace to worry about the things that normally occupy the mind. I came back from a week on the snow with my body feeling completely trashed but my mind fresher than ever before.  

But whatever our holiday preference, be it active, sedentary or a cocktail of both, it is short-lived. A fortnight is the average length of a holiday, maybe it’s just a cheeky long weekend. If you’re really pushing the boat out (literally if going on a cruise as many people do these days a) – a luxurious three or even four weeks. But however long it is, it is – by definition – not lifelong. We build up to it – “can’t wait to get away” and there can be huge expectation for all the things we’ve been struggling with to be magically less stressful “when I get back”. We think all the exhaustion we carry, all the frustration or disappointment, the overworking we live with on a daily basis, will disappear. We binge on relaxation and put huge pressure on ourselves to HAVE FUN and – that which has become the sly new marketing strategy – “making great memories”. Which can all turn out to be even harder work than what we’re trying to get away from. 

Last summer, we went to the Lake District. And it rained. A lot. I mean coming in under the doors/through the windows sort of a lot. So we played Monopoly. And watched the Mission Impossible films. We went for walks in the rain and ate picnics quickly between showers. It was rather like we were living through a low budget British 1980s adaptation of an Enid Blyton novel, instead of the big budget Caribbean fantasia of one’s dreams. By any official descriptor, it was a holiday – but I’m not sure it felt like one.  

There is a call for some time to be kept holy, time set apart when we’re not busy being busy, when we remember that we are human and limited and need rest.

So, as I’m keenly interested in the etymology of words, I looked up holiday* to find out whether I had achieved the objective. Holiday = a period of time when you are not at work or school – check; holiday = a period of time spent travelling or resting away from home – hmm, not sure about the resting but we were away; holiday = holy day – hang on, what? 

Most world religions or philosophies have some sort of rhythm or pattern for life which includes times of rest. These often (though not always) coincide with some sort of worship or festival. These are times set apart from the day-to-day occupation of “normal life”. Interestingly, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, rest is baked in right from the beginning. After a six “day” working week, so the beginning of the Creation story tells us, God rested. And just to underline the point, sometime later, that same God gave his people the 10 Commandments, one of which is – take a day off.  

The word “holy” means set apart, sacred and right at the heart of the Jewish and Christian lifestyle there is a call for some time to be kept holy, time set apart when we’re not busy being busy, when we remember that we are human and limited and need rest. When we can get some objectivity on our productivity; when we can see (as God did all those years ago) that what we have done is good and we can enjoy it. 

In our 24/7, I-achieve-therefore-I-am culture, we almost certainly don’t do nothing for a day a week. We are always doing something. Even on our day(s) off, we’re reading or scrolling or running or “making memories”. Where is the rest? Where is the holy?  

We don’t function properly – by which I mean we don’t flourish – if we never switch off. That’s how we were made. 

There is an ironically busy industry that has flourished in recent years around mindfulness and retreats; an industry which highlights the ultimately human need for rest. There are apps which help us breathe, there are gurus who massage us in body and mind. Cynically, some say capitalism has caught on to the ancient necessity of acknowledging and attending to our humanity, our need to stop doing and simply be. I think God would say, hooray! Or as Jesus put it, “Come with me to a quiet place and find some rest.” 

How can we put rest back on the agenda of our own lives? It’s different for each of us. One person’s rest is another person’s nightmare. Whatever it looks like, we need to learn how to have “a period of time not working” (whatever work may occupy us, paid or unpaid, seen or unseen). It’s a well-recognised fact that if your electronic device stops functioning properly, if you turn it off for a bit, it’ll restart happily and we are encouraged to restart our devices regularly. We all know that we’re a bit like that and yet... We don’t function properly – by which I mean we don’t flourish – if we never switch off. That’s how we were made.  

We need those moments when we put a spiritual umbrella in the glass of our life, kick back and look at what has been. We can give space for gratitude; for reconnection with ourselves, with our life and even with the omnipotent God who role models rest. 

So, this summer, we’re going to the South of France. I’m absolutely exhausted already. I’ve been organising a rota of (very kind) people to look after our dog; preparing work so I’m ready for the day after we get back; buying gallons of sun cream (just in case France runs out); booking trips and Googling where the nearest boulangerie is so we can have idyllic, spontaneous visits for life-changingly delicious croissants… Going on holiday is really hard work and I haven’t even gone yet. But this year, as I put on my sunglasses and factor 30, I am determined to make time to put the holy in my holiday. And holy days in my life. 

* (of course, if you’re not British, you might be interested in the etymology of the word vacation = "formal suspension of activity, time in which there is an intermission of usual employment"/state of being unoccupied. Which to my mind is summed up by the old adage, a change is as good as a rest, with which I have always taken issue….)