Over the last few years, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) has become both a hot topic and a bone of contention. The executive function disorder, previously thought to dissipate post-childhood, has been diagnosed in millions of adults, largely due to its increased visibility on social media and the relaxing of rules surrounding remote diagnosis. Stimulant medication like Ritalin and Adderall– the first line of treatment for the condition– is doled out to children and adults alike, and has become a bountiful $13bn gravy train for US pharmaceutical companies.
But of late, ADHD patients have been looking beyond medication and traditional therapy and towards ADHD coaching, a form of life coaching for those with the condition. Unlike traditional psychologists, who generally treat the emotional disturbance that comes courtesy of ADHD, many coaches have a goal-oriented approach and focus on optimising productivity and codifying the frenetic ADHD mind.
“I've transitioned to coaching because I do think it's a more hands-on approach,” says ADHD content creator and entrepreneur Nik Hobrecker. “Therapy I think is great for when you want to figure out who exactly are, why you do the things that you do. And then for coaching, it's like, well, how can you now do something to elevate your life?”
Given the condition’s ubiquity on social media (the hashtag #ADHD boasts 24.2 billion views on TikTok), it’s unsurprising that many coaches moonlight as content creators to advertise their services and procure clients. Hobrecker, who identifies as an ADHD mentor, has amassed a colossal 1.3 million followers for his zany skits and “ADHD life lessons”.
He tells VICE: “When you do get coached, you put your trust in someone else completely. And I think as content creators, you naturally have this halo around you. It's like, ‘oh, he knows everything,’ right? We often get this level of guru. I don't really like that… I just try to share my own experience.”
To be recognised as a professional ADHD coach by the ADHD Coaches Organization, you must complete one of ten approved training programs, which range between around 83 hours for $5,731 and 442 hours for $11,503 (the latter is provided by ADDCA, the gold standard in ADHD coaching). Alternatively, already-qualified life coaches can pursue a minimum of 35 hours of ADHD-specific training to add to their existing credentials.
But is a few weeks of training enough to counsel someone with a complex form of neurodivergence? Amy Clarke – speaking under a pseudonym to protect her privacy – found that it wasn’t. Struggling with her ADHD and having “exhausted all of [her] options,” Clarke, who works for the Department of Transport, sourced an ADHD coach through Access to Work, a UK government-backed scheme for people with disabilities. Although the coach she was assigned was “lovely” and had a daughter with ADHD, Clarke felt that she only had a rudimentary understanding of the condition.
“She’d been a coach for many, many years, but had only been an ADHD coach, I think, for about a year. And it felt to me a bit like she thought, ‘do you know what? This is an area I'm going to tap into because everyone wants coaches in this field,” she tells VICE. “When I would talk about very ADHD-typical experiences, I didn't really feel that she understood what I was talking about.”
ADHD coach Astrid McGuire’s clients reported similar stories: They’d found that few professionals catered sufficiently to their condition. (The same, of course, can be said for most mental health practitioners; even psychiatrists with bona-fide medical degrees may have an elementary understanding of ADHD.) “For ADHD individuals, feeling seen and heard and understood is very unique. It also requires quite a deep knowledge,” explains McGuire.
Hans van de Velde, the former vice-president of ADHD Europe and a veteran coach and therapist, chaired a committee investigating ADHD coaching and its efficacy in 2022. He found that few ADHD coaching courses are adequately thorough. “It's absolutely irresponsible when a person discovers his or her ADHD and one year later, they say, ‘oh, I’ve become a coach.’”
He maintains that coaches need a background in social work, psychology or education, through which you learn that “your own state of mind has to be clean, otherwise you mix up your own issues with difficult clients”.
ADHD’s notorious symptoms include difficulty concentrating, impulsivity and hyperactivity, but the funnelling of funds into ADHD research over recent years has led to the unearthing of knotty emotional symptoms which practical ADHD coaches may be ill-equipped to handle. “The people I coach, they need more [than practical coaching]. They have emotional problems. They have terrible self-image. And the self-belief system is a level up from practical coaching,” says van de Velde. McGuire echoes this: “If there's one sentence I wish I knew when I was diagnosed, [it’s] that ADHD is not just about focus. It also has to do with emotions.” Without an emotional element to coaching, she stresses, “you're just putting a plaster on an open wound”.
In ADHD patients, comorbidities are pervasive and something a coach without prior mental health training may struggle to identify. “It’s never only ADHD,” Hans explains. “People with ADHD have obesity, diabetes, other eating issues, insecurity, bad self-image, emotional regulation problems – if you list all these things, a coach may say, ‘No, I don't do that.”
To remedy this, van de Velde recommends coaches cultivate a network of ADHD-proficient psychologists or psychiatrists to consult when issues beyond their remit arise. Even van de Velde, with 25 years of experience, keeps a psychologist and psychiatrist at hand. “Know when you have to refer a person to a psychiatrist. Knowing your professional boundaries, that's very important,” he counsels. “Every coach would be just a bit more professional if they succeeded in working together in a multidisciplinary setting.”
But whether or not van de Velde’s philosophy is widespread is another story. A background in mental health isn’t a prerequisite for ADHD coaching, so many lack connections in the psych world. What’s more, when a fee is at stake (ADHD coaches generally charge between £60 and £150 per session), coaches may be loath to refer clients elsewhere. They also – like Campbell’s coach – may feel they can take on more than their training has qualified them to.
On the flipside, some patients are in the market for utilitarian tutelage. Given our profit-driven society, the traits we associate with ADHD – and the ones sufferers often look to remedy – are those that impede productivity in the workplace. Van de Velde recognises that there’s a place for practical coaching, but stresses the necessity for candour. “If the coach sells him or herself with, ‘I'm a practical coach, you can get tips and tricks,’ then okay, if you want to pay for it.”
Many ADHD coaches enter the field after being personally diagnosed with the disorder – a commonality with patients that often bears fruit in practice. “It's a completely different experience,” says Clarke of her second (and current) coach, who is a trained psychologist and has ADHD herself. “The experience has been really, really positive. She started with a list of very typical struggles for someone with ADHD and asked me to rate myself on each of those things, and picked out the things that I was struggling with the most and then gave me tools and techniques to deal with each of those things.” Van de Velde also deems personal experience instrumental in coaching people with the condition, but only in tandem with extensive tutelage.
But it’s not always a black-and-white training to expertise pipeline: There’s no paradigm for the ideal ADHD coach. “In the end, it may be possible that you'll meet a coach who does not have all the qualifications, but you click with him or her. And if it helps you, be my guest,” says van de Velde. McGuire expounds, “ethically, it all depends on the journey that you want to go on yourself as a coach, as long as you're transparent about your training. There's certification and accreditation, and accreditation means you've done exams. I've gone down that path, and I can honestly say, wow, it excludes a lot of people not in a financial position to do so.”
The field of ADHD coaching is – akin to counselling and therapy – virtually impossible to moderate, as there are no legally enforced training requirements. As van de Velde observes, “it's free to call yourself a coach, so that's a problem.”
It's up to clients to seek out a coach who works for them, an undertaking which may – unfortunately for our wallets – entail some trial and error. “It's about finding the right fit,” says McGuire, “and that's sometimes a search. I can safely say I'm not for everyone, and not every coach is for me, but that's a responsibility that the client holds.”
The bottom line? “Be clear in what you're selling. Those [practical] coaches, they sell themselves as if they are kind of heaven on earth for ADHD. That's not true,” stresses van de Velde.