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I'm not lazy or stupid, I just have ADHD

Imagine going your whole life needing glasses and not having them.

Imagine not being able to see the board at school or a computer screen at work. Imagine not seeing a friend walk past you in the street.

But imagine the reason you don’t have glasses is that you’ve never even considered you might need them, and no one around you — including your doctor — ever suggested getting an eye exam.

Instead of this you are told — as if your internal monologue hadn’t decided long ago — that you are stupid and lazy and undisciplined.

Then when you finally realise you need glasses you discover the wait to see an optometrist is nine months, if you can find one at all, and you can’t afford the appointment. 

I got my first pair of glasses at age 10, and a new world opened up for me. For the first time I could keep up in class and I saw the world with a new vivid colour.

I was diagnosed with ADD at age 47 – six months ago.  What I had spent a lifetime believing were character flaws vanished, and again I saw the world in a new vivid colour.

The change for me was transformational and immediate.  Others aren’t quite so lucky, but the recent increase in recognition and diagnosis of ADD and ADHD, is a huge positive for so many people.

Last week’s Senate ADHD assessment and support committee calls for a national strategy for tackling this condition and asks us all – both government and community – to take a giant step forward.

That step asks us to look at mental health conditions and neurodiversity with an open mind and an open heart.  It asks us to be curious about people’s struggles before jumping to judgement.

In an era when we tell ourselves that the stigma surrounding mental health conditions and neurodiversity has evaporated, the mindset of stigma lives on in our behaviour and public policy approaches.

There may be instances where mental health conditions and neurodiversity are misdiagnosed, and that is a valid issue worth addressing.

But to retreat to this judgement without recognising the many Australians for whom ADD or ADHD has been a lifelong struggle that remains untreated, or undiagnosed, is to yet again fail people who do not have the agency, means, or mental health literacy to get the care they need.

Simple and well-tested treatments for ADD and ADHD transform lives.  The money we spend on them is a small investment in not just improving the lives of individuals, but is also a powerful step towards better relationships, better education outcomes, better work performance, and a better society.

The child whose ADHD is promptly and effectively treated does better at school, without a single extra dollar being spent in the education system.  The worker whose ADD is promptly and effectively treated is better able to draw on their many talents to contribute more to their employer and the economy without a single extra dollar being spent on wages, bonuses, or retraining. 

And they all get to live better lives. 

We are overdue for a big conversation about mental health and neurodiversity in Australia. That conversation will demand a rethink of our attitudes, behaviours, systems and public policy. But if we have the courage to do this together we will all live happier, fuller, and more productive lives. 

Chris Gambian is Executive Director of Australians for Mental Health.

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