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  • Aubrey Keating

ADHD: A Root Cause for Prison Terms?

Recent studies have told us that between 25 and 40 percent of North American prison inmates have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and most are undiagnosed and untreated. This is an alarming overrepresentation when you consider that it’s estimated that only 5 percent of the general population has ADHD.

My personal experience makes me even more concerned about the fact that, in many cases, criminal activity and incarceration could have been prevented if ADHD symptoms had been properly identified and treated.

Often the condition is inherited from a parent; when I was diagnosed at age 43 and learned about a possible genetic origin, I began to look at other family members, even though ADHD had never been on our radar.

My father is an alcoholic. Because of the propensity of those with undiagnosed ADHD to self medicate, I first focused on him. While loving his beers, each job he held lasted decades and he is still married to the same woman (not my mother) after three decades. He’s lived close to his birth place his entire life. The more I learn about him and how he interacted with the world, the more I would believe an autism diagnosis over ADHD.

I next looked to my mother. She married twice, neither marriage lasting very long, and had a multitude of short-lived relationships after that. She rarely – if ever – held down a job, and substance abuse played a large role in her adult life. She displayed a lot of risky behavior, such as “family shoplifting trips” with my younger brother and me to get school clothes.

Sentenced at age 37 to nearly two years in prison for selling meth, my mother had first been introduced into the judicial system as a teen when she was arrested for stealing lipstick in the 60s. I can only imagine how different her life (and the life of her children) could have been if she had been diagnosed for ADHD and provided education and treatment.

Unfortunately, ADHD wasn’t introduced as a diagnosis until 1968 (then called Hyperkinetic Impulse Disorder). Because diagnoses for females are so much more difficult to obtain than males – especially if they are not hyperactive or outwardly disruptive – she had no chance at answers early in life.

This tale may be somewhat typical of families with undiagnosed ADHD. I do want to share that while not ideal, our household was always filled with love, respect, and fun. I had a childhood filled with impromptu dance parties in the living room, sudden road trips, and fabulously random conversations. I’m beyond thankful to have had a mother who believed in the worth of her children and felt there was nothing they couldn’t accomplish.

My mother passed ten years ago, at age 60, after several decades of poor health choices. She was sober after prison, but turned to an addiction of food and shopping QVC. By the time she was too ill to remain home, she had become a hoarding agoraphobe.

The more I learned about ADHD, the more I discovered my mother’s tale can be very typical of one who is undiagnosed or untreated, especially when it comes to the penal system.

Positive results have been shown by early detection and a combination of stimulant drugs and psychiatric involvement. There is a lot of effort involved, including inmate evaluations, staff training to notice ADHD symptoms and interventions in the populace, and involvement of mental health staff.

So what can we do? We can continue to educate others about the actual symptoms of ADHD and the complexity of the disorder. We can fight the stigma of mental health with understanding and education.

When possible, we can vote for representatives who stand for prison system reform and changes in the criminal justice system. Ideally these changes would focus on fixing the root cause of incarceration instead of locking up offenders to teach them a lesson. If the root cause is not addressed, not much may change upon their release.

I recently returned to the small town in Iowa where I spent half of my childhood to spend time with older cousins who had grown up alongside my mother. As my 90-year-old uncle explained to me one day, “Your mother was given NOTHING in this world and still did the very best she could. She wasn’t given a chance in life, yet fought hard to accomplish what she did. It wasn’t fair that was the hand she was dealt, but she did the very best she could with what she had.”

I think this is a good statement for us all. Instead of penalizing those who make unfortunate decisions because they don’t understand why they feel such compulsion to do so, we can work against stigmas and educate for symptoms experienced by those with ADHD, autism, OCD, dyslexia, and other conditions.

If inmates are given answers and tools to thrive in a neurotypical society, a burden will be lifted on both the individual and the judicial system.

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