Matt Walsh, responsibility, stigma and ADHD

shutterstock_68372575Matt Walsh is a popular blogger in the Christian community. He has over 250,000 Facebook followers, his writing is featured on other websites and he describes himself as being part of a community engaged in the battle for the traditional family. He’s developed his following (in part) by making very controversial statements about hot-button social topics. It’s how he makes his living and supports his family. I’d like to consider this post my contribution to his family’s sustenance.

In the middle of attending a wonderful conference on the topic of how the church can better care for and include persons with disability and their families, the mother of one of my patients messaged me with a link to Matt’s blog post from today on ADHD after her teenage son read the post this morning and was concerned about what she thought. I’ll share a brief sample with you to give you the flavor of his piece.

I have all of the “symptoms,” but I don’t have a disorder because there is no disorder. There might be people with legitimate disorders who get labeled with this one, but this one, this specific thing we refer to as ADHD, is a godforsaken lie. I don’t care who is upset by that statement, who will stop reading me because I said it, or how many angry and disappointed Facebook comments are coming my way. ADHD is a fraud…

I’ll share a little more. Having read Matt’s stuff in the past, I often find a kernel of truth in some of his statements that sometimes gets lost in a presentation style that seems designed to generate clicks, tweets and Facebook shares…

ADHD is not a matter of psychology or neurology, but of institutions. Schools can’t deal with kids who act this way, parents don’t want to deal with them, daycares aren’t equipped to deal with them, and society at large has no patience for any of it — so, we call it a disease and start passing out the prescription strength speed.

Does any Actual Illness work this way? If you go to the doctor complaining about bronchitis, will he ask you if the bronchitis is “creating problems at work on an ongoing basis”? No, because that doesn’t matter. Bronchitis is bronchitis is bronchitis. But ADHD is only ADHD in very specific circumstances. Public school, by the way, is a very specific (and temporary) circumstance. A child’s inability to succeed in that environment might be troubling for his parents, but it is not itself proof or indication of a mental defect. Why don’t we ever stop to consider that the defect lies in the institution that cannot function unless millions of its students are hopped up on drugs?

It’s true that with many of the conditions we categorize as mental illness in kids and teens, kids experience difficulty functioning in some environments, but not others. Matt’s personal story is very consistent with what I see among the kids we serve in our practice as they get older…when they’re old enough to either choose their area of study in school or choose a job with functional demands that fit the way they process and experience the world around them, ADHD becomes far less of a problem.

shutterstock_177465083So…when do these traits cross the line into becoming a “disorder” for which treatment (medication, educational interventions, therapy) is indicated? When they significantly interfere with the individual’s functioning in two or more major life domains (I look at these domains as school/work, family, friends, and community).

What Matt’s right about is that the expectations we have for kids in our educational system  in terms of their capacity to sustain focus and generate gobs of academic product aren’t consistent with the way many of our kids are wired. Ben Conner described this phenomena in his wonderful little book, Amplifying Our Witness

“It is our culture that disables.”

“When one is disabled, the problem is not really that they have impairments and social skill deficits. The issue at stake is that they live in an ‘ableist’ culture that rarely affords them the space or opportunity to make their unique contribution to society and does not lift up the value of choosing them as friends.”

Unfortunately, the consequences of failure in school are far more significant now than they were for my generation. Matt may have failed chemistry in high school, but modern-day Matts who fail chemistry don’t qualify for the scholarships that they need to attend college. The battles that parents engage in to get their kids with ADHD through school destroy the relationships that form the foundation of the influence parents have in shaping character.

IMG_0905The kids I see in my practice don’t want to have this. Much to the chagrin of the drug companies, most patients with ADHD take medication only take it when they absolutely need it. Try telling a kid who spends six hours a night doing the schoolwork that their friends get done in two that they don’t have a disorder. Or the kid who is having an anxiety attack at home after forgetting to bring home the right books from school for the third time in a week. Or the kid who struggles with impulse control and emotional self-regulation to the point that they can’t make or keep a friend? Or the family that has been asked to leave church because their child struggles with self-control?

The vast preponderance of parents who come through our practice are slow to accept a diagnosis of ADHD and anxious to find alternatives to medication as a treatment strategy. The ones who are out there looking for a pill after downloading a checklist from the Internet pretty much conclude that we’re not the place for them before they get to the end of our phone screen in the office. Not many realize that the odds of a marriage ending in divorce if a child has ADHD are greater than those marriages in which a child is diagnosed with autism.

Our parents are fighting to do the best they can for their kids in the face of an educational and healthcare bureaucracy with a propensity for pounding square pegs into round holes. They’re uncomfortable enough without someone in their culture with a platform shaming them by implying that their kid’s problems may result from parenting issues while communicating to their friends and neighbors that their kid has a non-existent condition. Way to go in supporting the traditional family, Matt! Sarcasm intended.

I’m speaking this Friday on the topic of how churches (and the community) can better serve and include kids with mental illness. One of the challenges we face in getting churches to serve families with the issues we see in our practice is that no one sees a need for intentional disability ministry outreach for those who aren’t thought to have a disability. Matt and others like him aren’t making my task any easier.

Responsibility comes with having a platform. Articles like this one…articles that leave my teenage patients questioning whether they have a genuine condition, have consequences. Google “Jenny McCarthy” and “measles,” for example.  We can do better than this in the Christian subculture.

For your reading pleasure, I direct you to the 148 published papers I found on the National Library of Medicine website using the search terms “neuroimaging,” “genetics” and “ADHD.”


ADHD Series LogoKey Ministry has assembled a helpful resource page for church leaders and parents addressing the topic of ADHD and spiritual development. This page includes our blog series on the topic and links to helpful videos and resources for pastors, church staff, volunteers and parents. Access the resource page here.

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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10 Responses to Matt Walsh, responsibility, stigma and ADHD

  1. Laurie Mershobn says:

    This is so disheartening to read. Mental illness IS real and these kids suffer when they don’t get the treatment they need. We’re bringing our daughter home after 3 long months in treatment out at UCLA for what we finally figured out was bipolar disease- 5 very long years watching her deteriorate/couple of hospitalizations, destroyed her college career, destroyed her equestrian career(rode for a NCAA team). And her comment to us…I’d rather have a congenital heart defect than have to deal w/mental illness and the stigma. Praying for the day when biomarkers are found for these diseases!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. danabrown68 says:

    This is a very irresponsible article. Such a shame you would shame parents for getting children the help they desperately need. You should be ashamed of yourself….


    • dragranados says:

      To danabrown – Are you addressing Matt Walsh (who made inappropriate and shaming remarks *elsewhere* and probably is not reading this page) … or Dr. Grcevich (who is criticizing inappropriate and shaming remarks by Matt Walsh)? I feel there may be a confusion.



    Bravo, Steve! I was pretty upset seeing Matt Walsh post his article. I attributed it to sheer ignorance. Yet, he doesn’t consider the wider damage he does by uttering such demeaning nonsense. Thank you for setting the record straight!


  4. Diane Engster says:

    You are right that this blogger has many kernels of truth in his statements. He sounds like someone who has been very much personally hurt by the diagnosis. For every child and family who are happy with the diagnosis and treatment, there are many who aren’t. It is very true that at this point in time, we don’t have very much information about the brain and the environment (family, school) to help the large numbers of children who receive this label or diagnosis.

    Of course, the point shouldn’t be to shame or blame, but I think that the fast paced society in which so many families have multiple obligations in an economy that doesn’t support them may have a lot to do with the rising number of prescriptions for ADHD. It’s hard to just keep up and if you are a little or a lot different as a child or adult you are quickly labelled.

    My husband struggles with many of the differences described in ADHD but had it as a child before the diagnosis existed. He ended up with 3 degrees from Harvard but these characteristics still affect him today. I think we would benefit a lot from teaching congregations, schools, employers and families things to understand and accommodate these characteristics and not to just treat the child or adult as the one with the diagnosis who is disabled.

    Doing inclusive ministry means being understanding and empathetic to everyone no matter how they view their disability.


  5. dragranados says:

    One underlying problem in Mr. Walsh’s statements stems from a common misconception among the public and the media: an incomplete understanding of the proper diagnostic process for ADHD. Too often, people see only a list of symptoms from the DSM-IV (or similar), without the accompanying material, and then they say, “But it’s NORMAL for [gifted children / boys / 8-year-olds / everyone] to behave that way at some point.”

    They are unaware of additional factors that are considered by every responsible diagnosing professional (* and upon third reading, Dr. G, I do see that you mentioned the domains etc.):
    * Is the behavior manifesting itself IN MORE THAN ONE SETTING? (e.g., if it’s only at school, maybe it’s the school — if it’s only at home, maybe it’s a home dynamic)
    * Is the behavior “inappropriate FOR DEVELOPMENTAL LEVEL”? * emphasis mine (e.g., if it’s what normal kids that age do, then it shouldn’t be identified as ADHD)
    * Is there evidence that the symptoms INTERFERE SIGNIFICANTLY **for the person**? It’s not enough that Mama or Daddy or Teacher or Boss has a problem with the person.
    * Is the behavior not better explained by …? (other conditions, specific life circumstances of the moment)

    I am a multi-degreed, highly experienced educator with a Ph.D. and 20+ years in education. I am a person who has scored in the 99th percentile on various tests since before I could read. I am a person who favors responsible parenting and educating that does not blame children for our own failures to train them. But along with all of that, I am a person who has lived with the good and bad of ADHD for as long as I could remember, and who did not get diagnosed officially until reaching grad school and finding that the many compensatory strategies my giftedness had led me to develop over the years were not sufficient to offset the ways this condition impeded me from *consistently* demonstrating the knowledge and skills I had developed.

    Thank you, Dr. Grcevich, for all you do to correct these wrong ideas, and thank you to the blog’s readers who aid you in disseminating the truth (one of whom was my introduction to your blog just this week! 🙂 )


  6. Beada Cates says:

    I found myself to be personally offended that Matt Walsh would establish such a stereotype as to imply that every parent or teacher only wants medication or that every child diagnosed with ADHD would be so unruly in school to need medication. Speaking from my own personal experience, raising a son with ADHD was vastly different than these implied stereotypes. Our son, middle child between two daughters, exhibited many different behaviors like sleeplessness, writing problems, fine motor skills delay, but no defiance issues. ADHD is not always so stereotypical. I won’t go into every detail however, but he was never medicated. He did level work never being retained in any grade and maintained a very respectable GPA. We changed some things in his diet, tried 3 years of occupational therapy for fine motor skills delays, to no avail, and worked on focus exercises from day to day. He is now 20 years old, in college, working full time, and is engaged to his high school sweetheart. He is a very responsible, productive member of society who is a blessing from God. He also will always have ADHD. It is just one way God made him unique, and he rose above his challenge in life to become the man God intended him to be.


  7. Eileen Apple says:

    I have ADHD as well as my son. I was not medicated for it and hated school, my teachers and so many other people because I was treated differently. I went to kindergarten in 72 if that helps. My son will start headstart for 3 yr olds in September. He is worse than me apparently from what I am told. I was raised in the church with a solid family so is my son. I cannot argue about weather ADHD is real or not what I can say is how much having these issues can affect a persons life. I was first hospitalized at age 13 for teenage depression and have been medicated on and off since. If there was a drug back when i was younger and I could have taken it looking back now I WOULD HAVE TAKEN THE DRUG. It is not about disciplining your child, teaching your child right from wrong or any other outside source it is about what is inside you. I have always been a bit odd but I am OK with that. It has taken me years to be able to say that. I will be 48 this year and I still have some issues that I have to deal with because of it. I do not regret anything because i am who I am because of what I went through. I do however think I may have had an easier life had there been interventions earlier and more understanding. I am not sure all who are diagnosed with ADHD have it as things do change constantly in the medical community. However I am sure that many people are not lying also. More study needs to be done to figure out what it is that is causing this to happen.


  8. Melinda sams. says:

    Matt just thinks he has all the symptoms. What he fails to understand is that symptoms must impair functioning to qualify a person with the diagnosis of ADHD. My son has inattentive type ADHD, so he’s never been hyperactive and never been a behavior problem. But he knew he was smart, and he became sad and frustrated that he couldn’t remember test material, to do his homework or to bring his books home. He became really anxious in school. My smart boy tested in 7th percentile in math on standardized tests, but after we got him on the right ADHD meds he scored on the Exceeds range in math. In one week he went from failing math tests to making 95 and up. He’s an 11th grader now and wants to take the meds even though he doesn’t like the side effects, because he wants to make good grades. He s so smart, but just can’t keep organized, remember assignments if stay on task through complex math problems without the meds. It’s a shame people like Matt get so married to opinions about things they really knw nothing about. It’s ignorant and irresponsible. Worst of all it’s hurtful to those of us who live with it and know for a fact how real it is.


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