What can Doctors do about Fake ADHD?

Stephen Faraone, Ph.D. Professor of Psychiatry SUNY Upstate Medical University

Stephen Faraone, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychiatry
SUNY Upstate Medical University

ADHD is a serious disorder that requires treatment to prevent many adverse outcomes. But, because the diagnosis of ADHD is based on how the patient responds to questions, it is possible for people to pretend that they have ADHD, when they do not. In fact, if you Google “fake ADHD” you’ll get many pages of links including a Psychology Today article on the topic and bloggers describing how they were able to fool doctors into giving them ADHD medications. Is fake ADHD a serious problem? Not really. The Internet it seems, is faking an epidemic of fake ADHD. I say that because we have decades of research that show many objective measures of abnormality and impairment in people who say they have ADHD. These include traffic accidents, abnormalities on brain imaging and molecular genetic differences. Some studies even suggest that ADHD adults downplay their ADHD symptoms. For example, one study diagnosed ADHD in children and then contacted them many years later when they were young adults. When they were interviewed as young adults, their responses to questions about ADHD suggested that they did not have the disorder. But when the same questions about the patient were asked to someone who lived with the patient as a young adult, it was clear that they still had ADHD. So rather than faking ADHD, many ADHD adults do not recognize that they have symptoms of the disorder. That said, we also know from research studies that, when asked to pretend that they have ADHD, adults can fake the disorder. That means that they can learn about the symptoms of the disorder and make up examples of how they have had them, when they have not. The research discussed above suggests that this is not common, but we do know that some people have motives for faking ADHD. For example, some college students seek special accommodations for taking tests; others may want stimulants for abuse, misuse or diversion. Fortunately, doctors can detect fake ADHD in several ways. If an adult is self-referred for ADHD and asks specifically for stimulant medication, that raises the possibility of fake ADHD and drug seeking. Because the issue of stimulant misuse has been mostly a concern on college campuses, many doctors treating college students will require independent verification of the patients ADHD symptoms by speaking with a parent, even over the phone if an in-person visit is not possible. Using ADHD rating scales will not detect fake ADHD and it is easy to fake poor performance on tests of reading or math ability. Neuropsychological tests can sometimes be used to detect malingering but require referral to a specialist. Researchers are developing methods to detect faking of ADHD symptoms. These have shown some utility in studies of young adults but are not ready for clinical practice. So, currently, doctors concerned about fake ADHD should look for objective indicators of impairment (e.g., documented traffic accidents; academic performance below expectation) and speak to a parent of the patient to document that impairing symptoms of the disorder were present before the age of twelve. Because the issue of fake ADHD is of most concern on college campuses, it can also be helpful to speak with a teacher who has had frequent contact with the patient. In an era of large lecture halls and broadcast lectures, that may be difficult. And don’t be fooled by the Internet. We don’t want to deny treatment to ADHD patients out of undocumented reports of an epidemic of fake ADHD.

References:
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Greve, K. W. & Bianchini, K. J. (2002). Using the Wisconsin card sorting test to detect malingering: an analysis of the specificity of two methods in nonmalingering normal and patient samples. J Clin Exp Neuropsychol 24, 48-54.
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