A clue about the emerging attention deficit tsunami


Years ago, when I was at school, after a conversation on the subject, one of my teachers suggested that I read a book called Sexual Deviation by Anthony Storr.

He warned me that I would see myself on every page. And he was completely correct, though I never could quite get my head around the chapter on foot fetishism.

My reason for telling this story is that for the second time in my life, I have read a book where I see myself on every page. 

It is called Scattered Minds – subtitled ‘The origins and healing of attention deficit disorder’. It is by a retired Canadian doctor called Gabor Maté, and he has ADD himself, and so do his wife and his children.

Maté is not very keen on the psychiatric model – he only believes in handing out ritalin pills as a last resort – and here’s why: he argues that ADD isn’t an inherited illness, but a reversible impairment and developmental delay, caused when circuits in the brain whose job is emotional self-regulation and attention control fail to develop in infancy. He writes:

“I do not accept that ADD is a disorder in the medicalised sense, although some influential authorities have called it that. It is an impairment, like for example, a visual impairment in the absence of any disease.”

It goes without saying that I now believe that I also have ADD. This is a big surprise to me – but knowing how I always wait until the last moment to go anywhere – and that I’m always late and have to apologise, I can only say that ‘if the cap fits…’ 

It was my therapist who suggested that I read the book – because she was shocked that I was attempting to finish writing three different books in as many months, all about completely different subjects.

I can also only apologise to all those women I pursued hopelessly over the years (Annette, Amanda, Alison, Penny…).

Now what interests me is why so many people are now referred for ADD.  

Maté believes that the original spark that causes this is when very sensitive babies stare up at their parents, desperately wanting to see love – and they find only distraction.

That is also why so many adults become campaigners. Because there is a distinction between empathy and identification – and ADD adults usually do the latter. They are triggered by something so long ago, in the deepest recess of their unconscious, and it comes out as blistering but impotent rage. 

They also have a horror and a childlike fear of authority figures.

So why are so many children getting diagnosed with ADD on both sides of the Atlantic? And why, for instance, to coin a phrase, “do French children not throw food”?

The answer has to be something to do with the Anglo-Saxon world and how it has developed economies that make parents work harder and harder for very little pay. 

In 1974, E. F. Schumacher published an article in The Times about the curse of ‘insane work’. 

According to the OECD, the UK is the only country in Europe which has seen the length of the working week grow since the mid-1980s. The Daily Mail called this phenomenon ‘Thatcher’s legacy’. The United States, the other home of the Anglo-Saxon economic model, was one of the very few other countries in which the poorest were also working longer hours.

One of the curses of too much work and too long hours is that we pass on our fears to our children and they end up getting ADD and so it goes on, growing and growing. 

When Juliet Schor wrote her groundbreaking book The Overworked American in 1992, she found that – over the previous twenty years – their working hours had increased by the equivalent of one month.

It is hardly surprising, in those circumstances, when people need two salaries to get themselves and their families housed, that they are bound to be a little distracted.  

It isn’t their fault. Maté ends the book with the phrase ‘active love’: “If you can actively love,” he says, “there will be no attention deficit and no disorder.”

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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