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What’s causing the UK ADHD epidemic!?

Worldwide prevalence of ADHD in the population has risen sharply to 5% of the population getting diagnosed with the condition, but in the UK the rise has been even sharper than in other countries!

What’s causing this epidemic of diagnosis? Popular explanations cite sugar use, E numbers, artificial additives, non-organic food, and other dietary concerns. Some people even think poor parenting must be the issue. We’ve all heard someone claiming ‘causes’ like these. A new Swedish study in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry suggests a different cause (Rydell et al, February 2018).

The new study took a ten-year period and looked at parental reports of ADHD traits. The increase in diagnosis in that time was found not to be related to more children having the condition. Had any environmental issues like diet or parenting been the issue, there would be more children reported to have traits by their parents later in the study (This does not rule out that these things may influence ADHD, but it does rule out that any recent increase in them has caused the recent rise in diagnosis). The study concludes that better understanding of the condition by parents, doctors and educators, plus better access to healthcare is the most likely reason for the rise in diagnosis.

What does this mean for the UK with our rise in diagnosis which is steeper than in other countries? It doesn’t mean we’ve an epidemic of ADHD due to poor parenting or ‘dietary poisons’. It means that as a country we’re doing really well at disseminating information about ADHD, recognising the symptoms, and screening for it.

This fits with my personal experience. When I took my kids to the doctor years ago thinking there may be something different about them, not only did the Paediatrician screen every child he saw with unusual behaviour for ADHD and ASD, but in my GP's waiting room an elderly patient looked at my kids using the furniture as a climbing frame and said, “seeing the GP about ADHD, are you?”. At that point, ADHD hadn’t crossed my mind as a possibility. At the time I thought all kids had the energy my kids had!

So, should we in the UK be worried about the rising amounts of diagnosed ADHD? No! we should be proud that we’re not letting kids slip through the net, that we’re supporting them to become their best selves. I hope every country catches up with the UK because if we’re not diagnosing them, they still struggle, but without a diagnosis, they struggle while also lacking the support and understanding they need to thrive.

If you’re part of the growing population of people that can recognise ADHD traits and act on that information, changing your behaviour towards the individual or helping them seek diagnosis, then pat yourself on the back! You’re making your country a better place, not just for those who get a diagnosis, but for everyone. When tested in prisons, ADHD has been correlated with higher offending rates (Cahill et al, April 2012) and in schools it has been correlated with poorer attainment (Zendarski et al, January 2017). With diagnosis comes support to change these outcomes, making the country with a higher diagnosis have less criminality and a better-educated population than countries with more people with undiagnosed ADHD. Less criminality and a better-educated population makes your society a better place to live. So, bring on the ADHD epidemic! It’s good for everyone.

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