Harvard Psychologist Explains Why He Thinks ADHD ‘Doesn’t Really Exist’

Harvard Psychologist Explains Why He Thinks ADHD ‘Doesn’t Really Exist’



Jerome Kagan is not only a tenured professor at one of the most prestigious universities in the world; he is also considered one of the world’s best psychologists. In fact, his fellow academics ranked Kagan the 22nd most eminent psychologist of the 20th century. This ranking put the good professor ahead of Carl Jung (Yes – THAT Carl Jung), who was ranked 23rd.

So, if anyone has earned the right to critique one of the most diagnosed mental health conditions in existence, it’s Jerome Kagan. And critique the condition, he does.

See, Kagan doesn’t believe that ADHD is a real condition. That’s right, Kagan’s position is that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a complete hoax. Needless to say, Kagan’s proclamation has ruffled a lot of feathers. Psychologists and other medical professionals have gone on the offensive, attempting to discredit Kagan’s statements. However, Kagan stands firm in his position.

Harvard Psychologist Reveals ADHD ‘Doesn’t Really Exist’

“…(ADHD) is an invention. Every child who’s not doing well in school is sent to see a pediatrician, and the pediatrician says: “It’s ADHD; here’s Ritalin.” In fact, 90 percent of these 5.4 million (ADHD-diagnosed) kids don’t have an abnormal dopamine metabolism. The problem is, if a drug is available to doctors, they’ll make the corresponding diagnosis.” – Jerome Kagan, Psychologist and Professor at Harvard University


But, when you’re considered a more impactful psychologist than Carl Jung and Ivan Pavlov, discrediting you is a very difficult thing to do.

Kagan is scathing in his criticism of the pharmaceutical industry. In Kagan’s view, the excessive amount of money circulating from the sale of prescription drugs is creating a number of problems.

First, physicians can financially benefit from promoting and prescribing certain medications. Of course, this can incentivize medical professionals to over-diagnose a condition in order to earn supplementary income. Some doctors earn in excess of hundreds of thousands of dollars just for working with the pharmaceutical industry. In Kagan’s view – and in the view of most – this is both an immoral and corruptive practice.


Second, pharmaceutical companies have amassed a sizeable influence on the political process. “Big Pharma” spends billions of dollars each year lobbying politicians to get what they want. In Kagan’s view, this is contributing to the corruptive influences within Washington D.C. and elsewhere.

Finally, Kagan says that more money flows to psychologists, psychiatrists and others who conduct research on conditions such as ADHD – a result of over-diagnosis and over-prescription. So, they are certainly not exempt from Kagan’s criticism.

The Problem of Misdiagnosis and Over-diagnosis

According to Kagan, “If you do interviews with children and adolescents aged 12 to 19, then 40 percent can be categorized as anxious or depressed. But if you take a close look and ask how many of them are seriously impaired by this, the number shrinks to 8 percent.”


Kagan uses depression as an example here, but he says that misdiagnosis – and hence over-diagnosis – occurs across an entire spectrum of mental health conditions. In simple terms, not everyone who displays a symptom or behavior has a mental health problem. Especially children, who are a “bit” prone to unpredictability.

Misdiagnosis leads to over-diagnosis, which is – in Kegan’s view – a problem plaguing the mental health profession. Looking at the number of children diagnosed with ADHD, it is difficult to disagree. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “approximately 11% of children 4-17 years of age (6.4 million) have been diagnosed with ADHD as of 2011.”

Kagan also makes the point that most children diagnosed with ADHD fall under one umbrella: “Who’s being diagnosed with ADHD? Children who aren’t doing well in school. It never happens to children who are doing well in school. So what about tutoring instead of teaching?”

The Answer

In Kagan’s estimation, a number of big problems exist across the entire fiend of psychology. While he is sharply critical of ADHD over-diagnosis, and for good reason, the problems Kagan speaks of span the entire mental health field. As such, there are no simple answers.


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But Kagan is adamant that mental health professionals must shift their approach to diagnosing ADHD, depression, anxiety, and other disorders. The answer? Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals need to begin making diagnoses similar to how most other doctors do: by looking at the causes, not just the symptoms. Again, this is especially with children, who often don’t have a great ability (or desire) to fully explain themselves.


He is under no illusion that doing so will be easy. In fact, when confronted with recent criticism that he is implying mental illnesses are an invention of Big Pharma and others, Kagan goes on the offensive:


“There are mentally ill people who need help. A person who buys two cars in a single day and the next day is unable to get out of bed has a bipolar disorder…There are people who, either for prenatal or inherited reasons, have serious vulnerabilities in their central nervous system that predispose them to schizophrenia, bipolar disease, social anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorders. We should distinguish these people…”

In other words, those responsible for administering brain-altering drugs to children need to search a little deeper. Doesn’t seem like an unreasonable proposition.


Right, Big Pharma?

CDC (2016) Data & statistics. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/data.html (Accessed: 4 November 2016).
(2012) SPIEGEL interview with Jerome Kagan: ‘What about tutoring instead of pills?’ – SPIEGEL ONLINE. Available at: http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/child-psychologist-jerome-kagan-on-overprescibing-drugs-to-children-a-847500-2.html (Accessed: 4 November 2016).
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17 thoughts on “Harvard Psychologist Explains Why He Thinks ADHD ‘Doesn’t Really Exist’

  1. There may or may not be misdiagnosis in childhood, but as a spouse of someone who was diagnosed and medicated for ADHD as a child, who tried various strategies and went without medications as an adult I can categorically say that he does not function without medication, and that ADHD with all it’s classic markers affects every aspect of his life. So if ADHD isn’t real then what is actually the medical problem then? PLease do tell.

  2. I’m sorry, ADD and ADHD are real. They are a physiological condition. Is it overdiagnosed? A very emphatic YES! THAT is the problem. Take a look at the intensive research done by Dr Daniel Amen (for example). He did not rush into these findings. In “brain maps” through MRIs, you can see a definite and physical difference between an ADHD brain and one that is not. It is not a disability or an excuse. 3 of the 5 of my children are affected by ADD, to various degrees. They did fine in school wo meds, but had issues socially and with impulse control, and yes, they focus and perform better in school w the meds that help “even the playing field.”. There is a difference when they take Rx and when they don’t. We don’t use the meds every day, but it has helped them to establish better relationships and function overall (organization skills). I hate that it is oversiagnosed, bc it IS a real condition, and those that are affected are getting the pushback against their receiving help. I wish there was a better system of diagnosis. We went through an intensive 7 hour testing and evaluation process w our kiddos to see how they reacted to different things, and it was apparent that there was a definite deficit in specific areas. Testing is expensive (as would brain scans be), but there needs to be better diagnosis!

  3. I agree completely with the good doctor and have always done so. When my grandson was 7 years old and acting out in school and in life, he was immediately placed on 700 mg of Seroquel a day! Saw a slight change in his behavior but at what cost? Now he’s 20, has had virtually no follow up, can’t hold a job, has fathered two children, has no sense of responsibility. ..I am not a mental health professional but it seems there had to be some connection between the adult man and the 7 year old child who was prescribed Seroquel and other medications that I can’t remember now.

  4. He should say ADHD is diagnosed to eadily instead of saying adhd doesn’t exsist. I know for certian it is a very real diagnosis and it wasn’t because my daughter wadn’t doing well in school. She is doing well despite her diagnosis. Its her ability to stay on task, filter out external noise around her and make friends that is impaired due to ADHD and very mild asd.

  5. Completely DISAGREE that ALL ADHD students are not “real”. When was the last time you were in a classroom or visited a family with a child with ADHD? WOuld love to hear how many children were in your sample and the methods you used for evaluation. Yes, some are quick to use it as a label to easily explain their child’s lack of attention but NOT ALL ADHD children and families fit this category. Very disappointing article.

  6. Yikes! So many pieces of misinformation I’m not sure where to start. First, physicians do not make money prescribing, much less “hundreds of thousands” of dollars. Also, “It never happens to children who are doing well in school.” Patently false, particularly with gifted children.

    That said, some things are true… big pharma does pay well into the millions on lobbyists, as does every major industry. That’s how DC works and we should put a stop to it.

    Also, the thing with ADHD (the acronym changes as we develop our understanding and try to capture it in words) is that it is along an entire spectrum. Every individual has different attributes that they are strong/weak in and to varying degrees. Just like stops on an organ, it’s a combination that makes up the individual. And it’s not a catch-all diagnosis. Being young humans, children in particular need assistance developing coping skills to support their preferences, challenges and learning styles and no one likes to give healthy children brain-altering drugs. But to say it doesn’t exist… maybe we should just say a catch-all doesn’t exist. Because it doesn’t.

  7. While I’m in agreement of over diagnosis of ADHD my adopted child was multi diagnosed when he became aggressive, hallucinated wanted to jump out a 3 Rd story window while on Ritalin and Paxil prescribed to him by a “prestigious” psychiatric doctor while he was experiencing psychosis we realized he had a bipolar disorder or better termed mood disorder he now is prescribed risperidone which is working for him along with a school that monitors his activity and behavior. He is getting good grades now.

  8. Until you’re dealing with a hyper child, you don’t know what you’re talking about. My daughter was diagnosed at 6, but only because they legally can’t test earlier. But we knew at 4 she most likely had ADHD. We knew there was something causing her to be extremely hyper. She didn’t sleep good and was always up running or jumping, she early sat still. She also had a hard time listening and focusing on what we were telling her.

    I very strongly think schools in the US are to strict with kids. Kids need to be kids and have more recess, less time sitting still and more time getting energy out, but a child with ADHD, is a lot different then a “normal” child.

  9. I bet Jerome Kagan is exhausted after single-handedly testing 5.4 million students to confirm they did not have an abnormal dopamine metabolism. Way to go Doc!

  10. This article is in no way positive. It is contrary to what you write in your “about us” statement. So what is wrong with these children, if anything? Why does Kagan come to these conclusions? Do these children not get the discipline they need from their parents? The article basically makes two statements: The doctor is well regarded and that he thinks that ADHD is a made-up malady so that doctors and big pharma can rip-off well meaning parents. This article needs to be expanded on and finished. We are all left with the thought, “so what?
    Don’t leave us hanging.”

  11. ADHD doesn’t exist because is over diagnosed, the pharmaceutical industry makes money … please, to tell it doesn’t exist you must present a “real” explanation.

  12. Yeah ok, I’m not going to argue but if you look up the symptoms of ADHD, I’ve had all of them all of my life and I’m 46. Doesn’t matter to me who thinks it’s a hoax.

  13. My son does well and school yet was still diagnosed with ADHD he still needs to be directed to keep on task.It’s the problem after school that’s the most difficult getting his homework done and completing assignments. He has kept it together all day and then the stress chemicals burst and he blows up like a volcano! Everything about his behaviour is inattentive and he relies on visuals to help him as well making lists. His ADHD can be managed with or without it’s the ODD that’s affecting him and our family. But to read that this Dr believes ADHD is a hoax, an invention concerns me. He should come stay with me for a weekend where I have inattentive and hyperactive at odds with another and then he’ll find out the truth.

  14. Yes. I agree that ADHD is definitely over diagnosed and prescribed. However, having a Masters in social work and working briefly in low income community health care I can tell you the amount of time that is “allowed” to be spent with families is ridiculous. That is if families can get through the waiting lists and make it to appts when lacking transportation. Children are now forced to sit the majority of the day while being taught for exams instead of life. Extra curricular activities are continually being cut. Single parents try to make ends met working numerous jobs for not a living wage. Not to mention what we are learning about our brains neuroplasticity. When behaviors start out as not an ADHD diagnosis the more they are entrenched into the neural pathways. Perhaps not what one Md, or PhD would like to see as a clear cut case of ADHD. the time, resources, and understanding are simply not available to most.

  15. This is such bull confetti, I have been diagnosed with ADHD since I was a young child and was never put on medication. now I’m 32 years of age and still having the same concentration issues as I’ve always had. I to this day don’t do drugs (prescribed or street) and find it hard to sit still, I’m always on the go (tapping my feet, twiddling my fingers, bouncing). A question for you “smart people” if ADHD isn’t real then what do you think my issue is from what I had described?

  16. the adhd makes sense to you but i would like for you to see my child without meds believe me i wish it was not true but as parents with a child with adhd it is real he is made fun of the learning process is bad and social skills are lacking when you have a child that has adhd then you can hve your opinion but as a person that deals with it everyday you have no idea

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