Children are wrongly diagnosed with ADHD if they fall behind in school, neurologist warns

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Children are being misdiagnosed with ADHD when they are just late, according to a leading neurologist, who says the medical profession is too quick to label people.

Suzanne O’Sullivan, a consultant at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, said adults are also being wrongly told they have depression, autism or ADHD.

“Western medicine pulls people into the category of ‘sick people’ and that really worries me. I worry especially about the children,” O’Sullivan told an audience at the Hay Festival.

“A child who falls behind must be recognized and helped. Do we need to give them a label that they will carry with them for the next 70 years to do this?

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“Or can we just say that the child is struggling and needs help, without labeling it, so that it can move into its adult life without the burden of having an indication that does he have a chronic illness?

Call sadness “depression”

O’Sullivan described “a growing tendency” in Western societies “to call sadness ‘depression’, to say that difficulty functioning in certain situations means you have a learning problem or a behavioral problem like autism or ADHD.

“I want to make it clear that there are people with conditions like ADHD, autism and depression who are on the severe spectrum and for whom absolutely no one can claim that they don’t have very serious problem and are severely disabled.

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“But increasingly, medicine is broadening the definition of these conditions. Before, when I was a young doctor, there were only a very small number of people who had problems like ADHD or autism, or very serious learning problems.

“Medicine is gradually attracting new people into these groups by relaxing the definitions.”

O’Sullivan said the medical profession “colluded” with patients to hand over a diagnosis of depression.

She said: “People come to us all the time saying, ‘I feel very bad, I need to understand why.’ We feel compelled to give them labels.

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“If you come to me and say you’re in pain, and I try to give the best explanation, a lot of people will just say, ‘No, what’s the name of the thing I have?’ So it’s easier for you and me if I give you a specific name and treatment. These long explanations are much more difficult to understand.

O’Sullivan said the declining importance of the church in modern life and the trend away from family means doctors are one of the few places we go to for help in cases of emotional problems.

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