Dr Caroline Leaf – stop spreading ADHD stigma and ignorance

“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” ~ Martin Luther King Jnr.

Sincere ignorance … conscientious stupidity – I’m struggling to know which category to put Dr Leaf’s latest e-mail newsletter into.

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist and self-titled mental health expert.  She is not a doctor.  She is not a psychologist.  She does not work for a university.  She hasn’t published any peer reviewed medical papers for two decades.  She is not accountable to any peak professional body.

Yet the Christian church gives her unfettered access to their pulpits despite the ignorance and stigma she enthusiastically promotes.

Take the “Mental Health News” e-mail that she posted today for example.  Dr Leaf seamlessly moves from one misrepresentation to another, weaving a narrative that unfairly undermines scientifically proven treatments for mental illness, eroding confidence and destroying hope.

She starts with the story of Michelle and Carter, although it wasn’t Michelle and Carter as her e-mail newsletter stated. It was Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy, something which Dr Leaf got right in her blog post dated 1 August 2017 (see the image at the bottom of the page), but then got wrong in her e-mail newsletter on 30 August 2017. Dr Leaf says that Michelle texted Conrad to kill himself, and he did. Michelle and Conrad were on “brain-disabling” (psychiatric) drugs. Therefore, psychiatric drugs killed Michelle and Conrad. In my opinion, that Dr Leaf would stoop so low as to use the suicide of a teenager to try and push her own ideological barrow says much about her character, but then I shouldn’t be surprised as she did the same thing when Carrie Fisher died earlier this year. It’s sick, and it’s low, and it’s something that Dr Leaf should apologise for.

It’s also incredibly disingenuous, drawing a conclusion from incomplete evidence. Dr Leaf has no experience with the case. Instead, the source of this information is Dr Peter Breggin, himself an outspoken and discredited critic of psychiatric medication with a penchant for cherry picking and bias. Dr Leaf has used the story of Michelle and Conrad based on the tainted recall of half a story. She has no idea what really contributed to Michelle and Conrad’s tragedy. Her statement, “Yet, as is often the case, there is a large and dreadful disparity between what actually happened and what we are told happened” is therefore sadly ironic.

Dr Leaf then moves on to ADHD and drugs. Dr Leaf treats the concepts of ADHD and its treatment with the same respect as she gave Michelle and Conrad. She makes statement after misleading statement which do nothing but demonstrate her myopic bias.

Let’s just take one sentence: “These drugs create, rather than cure, chemical imbalances in the brain, are difficult to come off and can have terrible side-effects that last for years, including suicide and homicide.”

ADHD is often misunderstood and almost always stigmatised.  ADHD is more than just being an active child who likes to play.  ADHD is a dysfunctional lack of control that’s abnormal compared to other children the same stage of development, is long standing and affects their entire lives.

ADHD is caused by an abnormal pattern of genes, the expression of which are triggered by environmental conditions in pregnancy and early childhood, resulting in slower maturation of the brain and an uncoordinated network of “connectomes”, which disrupts the attention and planning processes of the brain.

We know that children with ADHD have slower maturation of the grey matter [1] and structural changes in the frontal regions and deeper parts of the brain [2].  In more recent times, modern brain imaging techniques have been able to show differences in the way that the regions of the brain link together to form networks.

Think of the brain networks as a tug-o-war team.  When all the members of a tug-o-war team work in unison, they increase their collective strength, but if the different team members don’t co-ordinate their efforts properly, the strength is lost.  The same goes for the brain.  Modern neuroscientists have discovered that the function of the brain relies on physical networks within the brain, called “connectomes” and how these connectomes co-ordinate with each other.

In the ADHD brain, the connections between the different connectomes are immature [3].  These immature connections weaken the collective strength of the network, because they aren’t synchronously “pulling” together.

What’s better understood is that the neurotransmitter called dopamine is crucial to the ADHD disease process [4].  Medications such as Ritalin which enhance the dopamine signals in the brain significantly reduce the symptoms of ADHD [5].

So Ritalin and other drugs like it actually balance the neurotransmitters in the brain.  Dr Leaf’s argument that they “create … chemical imbalances in the brain” is as misleading as trying to argue that diabetic treatments are creating an “insulin imbalance”.

“These drugs … are difficult to come off” is also misleading.  Once the brain eventually matures as it does in most children with ADHD, the drug is simply weaned.  Dr Leaf doesn’t seem to understand that some children with ADHD will grow into adults with ADHD who will still need medication.  This isn’t because the drugs are hard to come off, they are simply treating an ongoing condition.

“These drugs … can have terrible side-effects that last for years, including suicide and homicide.”  Actually, the effects of Ritalin last less than a day because the drug is rapidly metabolised, and ‘homicide’ is not listed anywhere in the official product information.  Suicide has been reported in patients taking the Ritalin although the official product information notes that, “Adverse events reported since market introduction in patients taking methylphenidate include suicide, suicide attempt and suicidal ideation. No causal relationship between methylphenidate and these events has been established.”  Even so, medications like Ritalin are not meant to be given to people who have severe depression, anorexia, psychotic symptoms or suicidal tendency, just in case Ritalin might worsen these conditions.

Indeed, a Cochrane Review as recently as November 2015 said, “The evidence in this review of RCTs suggests that methylphenidate does not increase the risk of serious (life threatening) harms when used for periods of up to six months. However, taking methylphenidate is associated with an increased risk of non-serious harms such as sleeping problems and decreased appetite.” [6]

So “these drugs” don’t have side effects for years, don’t make people homicidal, don’t make people addicted and don’t unbalance their brain chemicals.  It’s amazing how much profound mistruth Dr Leaf was able to pack into one littlesentence.

Then Dr Leaf goes on to attack the concept of ADHD itself – “Unfortunately, there is little scientific evidence for these labels … the very idea of ADHD, which includes vague operational definitions such as ‘often fidgets with hands or feet or squirms in seat,’ is subjective and defined by what society currently deems as ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’”.

Denying the existence of ADHD is an old trick used by medication critics and the ignoranti for decades, but it’s like denying the existence of rain so you don’t have to buy an umbrella.  Dr Leaf’s assertion that the diagnosis of ADHD includes ‘vague operational definitions’ is just a strawman, because ADHD diagnosis is rigorous and relies on more than just a single characteristic like fidgeting.  I have listed the diagnostic criteria for ADHD at the end of this post, or you can look it up here: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/diagnosis.html

In all of Dr Leaf’s railing against medications for ADHD, she fails to cite the evidence that shows that medications for ADHD improves the lives of those with ADHD [6], more than restrictive diets or cognitive retraining or neurofeedback [7].

Dr Leaf may like to think of herself as an expert, but her claims on ADHD and it’s treatment do not hold up under scrutiny.  She may think she’s acting benevolently but the promotion of her Dunning-Kruger style ignorance erodes the enormous hope that medications like Ritalin give to people who, without it, are held back by the mental and physical chaos that ADHD causes.

Dr Leaf, please, stop spreading the ADHD stigma and ignorance.  We already have to put up with enough suffering from the disease itself and the social stigma without you adding to it.


[1]       Shaw P, Lerch J, Greenstein D, et al. Longitudinal mapping of cortical thickness and clinical outcome in children and adolescents with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Archives of general psychiatry 2006 May;63(5):540-9.
[2]       Cortese S. The neurobiology and genetics of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): what every clinician should know. European journal of paediatric neurology : EJPN : official journal of the European Paediatric Neurology Society 2012 Sep;16(5):422-33.
[3]       Cao M, Shu N, Cao Q, Wang Y, He Y. Imaging functional and structural brain connectomics in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Mol Neurobiol 2014 Dec;50(3):1111-23.
[4]       Wu J, Xiao H, Sun H, Zou L, Zhu LQ. Role of dopamine receptors in ADHD: a systematic meta-analysis. Mol Neurobiol 2012 Jun;45(3):605-20.
[5]       Reichow B, Volkmar FR, Bloch MH. Systematic review and meta-analysis of pharmacological treatment of the symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children with pervasive developmental disorders. Journal of autism and developmental disorders 2013 Oct;43(10):2435-41.
[6]       Storebo OJ, Ramstad E, Krogh HB, et al. Methylphenidate for children and adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The Cochrane database of systematic reviews 2015 Nov 25;11:CD009885.
[7]       Sonuga-Barke EJ, Brandeis D, Cortese S, et al. Nonpharmacological interventions for ADHD: systematic review and meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials of dietary and psychological treatments. The American journal of psychiatry 2013 Mar 1;170(3):275-89.

ADHD Diagnostic Criteria

The current criteria that must be matched to qualify for a diagnosis of ADHD is:

(1) Inattention: Six or more symptoms of inattention for children up to age 16, or five or more for adolescents 17 and older and adults; symptoms of inattention have been present for at least 6 months, and they are inappropriate for developmental level:
* Often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, at work, or with other activities.
* Often has trouble holding attention on tasks or play activities.
* Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly.
* Often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace (e.g., loses focus, side-tracked).
* Often has trouble organizing tasks and activities.
* Often avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to do tasks that require mental effort over a long period of time (such as schoolwork or homework).
* Often loses things necessary for tasks and activities (e.g. school materials, pencils, books, tools, wallets, keys, paperwork, eyeglasses, mobile telephones).
* Is often easily distracted
* Is often forgetful in daily activities.

(2) Hyperactivity and Impulsivity: Six or more symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity for children up to age 16, or five or more for adolescents 17 and older and adults; symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity have been present for at least 6 months to an extent that is disruptive and inappropriate for the person’s developmental level:
* Often fidgets with or taps hands or feet, or squirms in seat.
* Often leaves seat in situations when remaining seated is expected.
* Often runs about or climbs in situations where it is not appropriate (adolescents or adults may be limited to feeling restless).
* Often unable to play or take part in leisure activities quietly.
* Is often “on the go” acting as if “driven by a motor”.
* Often talks excessively.
* Often blurts out an answer before a question has been completed.
* Often has trouble waiting his/her turn.
* Often interrupts or intrudes on others (e.g., butts into conversations or games)

In addition, the following conditions must be met:
– Several inattentive or hyperactive-impulsive symptoms were present before age 12 years.
– Several symptoms are present in two or more setting, (e.g., at home, school or work; with friends or relatives; in other activities).
– There is clear evidence that the symptoms interfere with, or reduce the quality of, social, school, or work functioning.
– The symptoms do not happen only during the course of schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder.
– The symptoms are not better explained by another mental disorder (e.g. Mood Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, Dissociative Disorder, or a Personality Disorder).