To gauge the extent of stigma towards persons with ADHD, a European research team hired a company specialized in market and social research to conduct a poll of some five thousand randomly selected Germans. Just over a thousand completed the interview, representing a response rate of only one in five. The team acknowledged, “Although non-responder bias has to be considered to be important, ethical considerations prohibited the collection of any detailed information on non-respondents.” The sample had slightly more women and elderly persons, and a higher average level of educational attainment relative to the German population as a whole. Sampling weights were used to compensate for these discrepancies.
The poll relied on computer-assisted telephone interviews. Interviews began with prerecorded vignettes of either a 12-year-old child or 35-year-old adult exhibiting core symptoms of ADHD (such as “careless mistakes in schoolwork,” “does not follow through on instructions,” “easily distracted by extraneous stimuli”, “loses things”, “leaves his place in the classroom or when sitting at the dining table”). Half those interviewed were presented with child vignettes and half with adult vignettes. The gender of the person described varied randomly.
On a scale of one to five, respondents were asked to indicate levels of agreement with two statements: 1. ‘‘Basically, we are all sometimes like this person. It’s just a question of how pronounced this state is.’’ 2. “All in all the problems of Robert / Anne are abnormal.” For both child and adult vignettes, two out of three respondents agreed that “we are all sometimes like this person.” One in three respondents considered the problems depicted in the child vignettes as abnormal. That dropped to one in four in the adult vignettes.
Next, respondents were asked whether they ever had a problem like this and whether someone among their family or close friends ever had to deal with such a problem. For both vignettes, one in four acknowledged having had a problem like this, and half said a close friend or family member had such a problem.
On the assumption that “negative emotional reactions are an important consequence of negative stereotypes, leading to separation, discrimination and status loss,” respondents were probed for the specific emotional reactions. “I feel annoyed,” “I react angrily,” and “provokes my incomprehension” were interpreted as indicating varying levels of anger. “Provokes fear” and “Makes me feel insecure” were seen as indicating fear. “I feel uncomfortable” was viewed as indicating somewhere between fear and anger. On the other hand, “I feel the need to help,” “I feel pity,” and “I feel sympathy” were interpreted as “pro-social” responses.
Pro-social reactions were by far the most common. Over two-thirds felt a need to help a child, and over half to help an adult, in such a situation. In both instances, almost half felt sympathy, and half or more felt pity. On the other hand, a quarter of respondents in each case felt annoyed, and just under one in five felt uncomfortable. Almost one in seven reacted angrily to the child vignette and almost one in six to the adult vignette. Fear was the least frequent emotional reaction.
In the case of adults, respondents were also asked about their willingness to accept the person described in the vignette in seven social situations:
- Working together
- As a neighbor
- Marrying into the family
- Introducing to a friend
- Renting a room
- Recommending for a job
- Taking care of children
While three out of four respondents were willing to accept such persons as co-workers, only one in three would recommend them for a job. Two out of three would accept such persons as neighbors, and almost as many to marry into the family. Three out of five would very willingly introduce such persons to friends. Slightly over half would rent a room to them. But less than one in three would be willing to have such individuals take care of their own children.
Older respondents were more likely to see the problems as “abnormal” and to seek greater social distance. Women and respondents with higher levels of education were less likely to see the problems as abnormal and more likely to respond in pro-social ways.
Though showing most Germans to be accepting of persons with ADHD, these findings still indicate a significant degree of stigma, though less than for other psychiatric conditions such as depression, schizophrenia, or alcohol dependence.
Sven Speerforck, Susanne Stolzenburg, Johannes Hertel, Hans J. Grabe, Maria Strauß, Mauro G. Carta, Matthias C. Angermeyer, Georg Schomerus, “ADHD, stigma and continuum beliefs: A population survey on public attitudes towards children and adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” Psychiatry Research (2019) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2019.112570.