Is ADHD a Response to Adversity or a Mental Disorder?

A hunter temperament might be one causal factor of ADHD behaviors.

Posted Sep 20, 2020

A recent Psychology Today post, “What if certain mental disorders are not disorders at all?" offers food for thought. The author, Dr. Escalante, relying on recent research by biological anthropologists, argues that there may be good reason to think of mental disorders as responses to adversity rather than as chemical imbalances in the brain.

With 9.4% of American children diagnosed with ADHD, the question of whether ADHD is really a mental disorder caused by a defective brain bears re-examining. Even Robert Spitzer, author of the DSM-III, the psychiatric manual that first named inattentiveness and impulsivity as a mental disorder, later admitted that no biological cause for such a disorder had been discovered.          

The biological anthropologists Escalante cites suggest that what we call ADHD is a mismatch with the educational system that we have today. They conclude that it is not a mental disorder at all. A similar argument has been made by author Thomas Hartmann in his book Hunters in a Farmer’s World.

In a recent podcast, part of the podcast series called “ADHD is Over” (also the title of a forthcoming documentary film), Hartmann makes an interesting point. He argues that children who are impulsive might not fit well in today’s educational environment which discourages and even labels impulsivity as a “disorder.” But being constantly distracted by the environment and being impulsive might well have been a useful skill when deciding whether to go after the rabbit one has been hunting or a deer that appears suddenly. Sitting in a cave with a pad and a pen doing a risk-benefit analysis of which one would make more sense to hunt might lead to a dinner-less evening, whereas impulsively changing course and going after the deer could well put weeks of meat on the family hearth.

Hartmann argues that a person with a hunter mentality would be more likely to notice the deer or rabbit in the first place since he is wandering around being constantly distracted by his environment. Constantly scanning the environment might also be a survival trait since one would be more likely to notice a bear that would like to make the hunter its own dinner.

In my books and articles, I have argued that ADHD does not exist as a mental disorder. A vast field of research demonstrates that the behaviors psychiatrists have labeled ADHD in recent decades have many causes: childhood trauma, family dysfunction, overexposure to electronic screens, not having enough physical activity, being bullied, food allergies or sensitivities, being among the youngest children in the classroom, and so forth. Having a "hunter temperament" might well be another causal factor of these behaviors.