YMCA Stigmatizes ADHD Families. Acceptable To Stigmatize Children With Mental Health Conditions For Money?

YMCA using children with ADHD as scapegoat bait for their marketing machine.

Update: See follow up post to this with new information.

The YMCA has done many good things for many people, they’re a large multimillion dollar organization with a big impact on many members of the community in a very wide variety of ways.

I can’t think of any negative media mentions about the YMCA I’ve ever come across before this ad. That’s why this highly controversial and stigmatizing ad was so shocking to me and to others with ADHD.

This post and all content on my website, blog and twitter account are solely my opinions.

The YMCA has worked hard to build a great brand reputation and this is very “Off Brand” as marketers would say. The YMCA is not like some shady supplement company trying to pass off their concentrated horsetail extract as a fake “cure” for ADHD that you see far too often on Twitter. People with ADHD were very shocked to see this ad was approved by and paid for by the YMCA.

YMCA ADHD Stigma ad that ran in 24 Hours Vancouver April 15 2010  p10

The YMCA ran this ad in 24 hours Vancouver (link expired but have full PDF)  Thursday April 15th page 10 and in Metro Vancouver (PDF) page 4 the same day. The combined daily circulation of both papers is about 250,000.

It seemed to be part of their “Where did community go?” ad and Facebook campaign where technology & the internet was portrayed in a negative light that was damaging “community”, and the solutions seemed to be basically defined as go and pay for programs at the YMCA.

If you were a parent of an ADHD child taking ADHD medication and saw that YMCA ad, how would it make you feel? How would you explain that YMCA ad to your ADHD child taking a YMCA program?

Would the YMCA do a similar ad and substitute Prozac for Ritalin? Or substitute Insulin for Ritalin? Would 24 Hours Vancouver and Vancouver Metro have run those ads?

Ritalin is not just a word for the actual medication itself, it’s also used many, many  times to denigrate, trivialize, stigmatize and demonize the actual neurobiological condition of ADHD which is 80% genetic.  If the child has ADHD the parents should be screened for it. Many people avoid getting assessed for ADHD because the stigma is so strong. Most adults with ADHD don’t know they have it.

I did an interview with a CBC reporter on Friday on the ad and asked people on Twitter what they thought of it. The YMCA ADHD Stigma ad stirred up some strong reaction on Twitter, here’s a few examples.

BC_Iconoclast: @petequily There are times when I value ADHD, and there are days where I wish I did not need ritalin to make my day work. YMCA bugs me today

ADD4Adults: YMCA has really stirred up the ADHD pot of controversy & pissed a lot of people off with this advertising in Vancouver http://bit.ly/c05r00

AureliaCotta: @WDCG_YMCA @petequily YMCA You had better pull the ads and apologize officially, and publicly. Many families with ADHD are watching

AureliaCotta: @petequily @WDCG_YMCA @TBWA I would also like to see the ad agency who created those disgusting ads to publicly apologize.

lizditz: .@petequily great work on rebuking #YMCA for ad that stigmatizes #ADHD #specialed http://bit.ly/bZjbxC

Stigma is one of the worse things about mental health conditions, it prevents or delays many people from seeking diagnosis and treatment. As an adult ADHD coach who has ADHD and runs the Vancouver adult ADD support group, and is on the board of CHADD Vancouver, I hear too many horror stories of adults with ADHD and parents of children with ADHD who didn’t seek a diagnosis and treatment because of the heavy stigma against ADHD.

People without the condition may find it hard to understand why this is so important, might read this for more insight. I hope that people with ADHD will start speaking out about this & educating people about ADHD & stigma. If we don’t do it no one else will.

It’s not just about Ritalin

It’s not just about ADHD medication.

It’s not just about the YMCA.

There are many Common Myths, Misconceptions, and Stigma Surrounding ADHD

If you had a kid with ADHD & saw that ad, would you be more likely to go to the YMCA? Or go to a gym that might be more ADHD friendly like the ones at the 24 Vancouver Park Board – Community Centres? Or one of the many other Vancouver Gyms?

There are parents who will let their ADHD child fail a whole year of school because they’re afraid to use medication because they’ve bought into the stigma that this YMCA ad is perpetuating.

YMCA of Greater Vancouver’s About Us page says their core values are

·  Caring
·  Honesty
·  Respect
·  Responsibility
If you were a parent of an ADHD child who was taking ADHD medication to treat the condition and saw that ad, would you feel that the ad showed caring and respect to you or your child?

Exercise is great for ADHD, I’ve done a lot of posts about how exercise is useful for ADHD on my blog but it’s certainly not a complete solution, some children and adults with ADHD may need medication just to get organized enough to get out and exercise on a regular basis.

There’s no one magic bullet for ADHD, not what I do Adult ADHD Coaching, not ADHD medicationRitalin is only one of many ADHD medications. Stimulant medications have been around for 70 years, they’ve been studied more than most of the meds you’ve ever taken.

How you manage your child’s ADHD or is a decision between yourself, your child and your doctor, period. No one should stigmatize you for choosing to manage your ADHD they way millions of people with ADHD do every day.

I know of people with ADHD who bought into the stigma around ADHD medication that this YMCA perpetuates who didn’t want to use ADHD meds and ended up using illegal drugs to self medicate and became drug addicts. Research has shown that children who are treated with medication are less likely to get addicted to illegal drugs later in life.

A blogger @SuperADDMom that’s on twitter has blogged about it. Here’s her tweet

@SuperADDMom my blog response to the #YMCA #ADHD Advertisement. ( includes picture of the ad)” So Tired of the Stigma

It struck a chord on Twitter. Here’s a bit from her blog post on the YMCA Stigma ad

The stigma of living with ADHD is pretty negative at times. The negative impact it has on our day to day lives, and the people we live with can get pretty stressful. So stressful in fact that without help from medications to regulate brain chemistry, and being on top of RIGID routines to make life easier, we can end up being sucked down the big black ADHD holes of depression and inability to cope…

So, as a person with ADHD it really pisses me off when people make jokes about my medication, or imply that I must be a “happy mommy” because I take amphetamines to “get through the day”. Or they joke and ask me how I pulled off an ADHD diagnosis just to “score”. They say things like ” nice deal if you can get it” …

You’re stigma, prejudice and “jokes” are offensive. PLAIN AND SIMPLE.

The only way to stop stigma against people with ADHD is to stop being silent about it.

I recently talked to an ADHD adult  who used crystal meth to self medicate his ADHD,  became a meth addict, became homeless,  got clean, used long term ADHD stimulant meds and other methods to manage his ADHD instead of doing it with meth, and has totally changed his life around. Not all come out alive of drug addiction.

In one study  1/3rd of teens using meth in that study had ADHD. Only 8% of kids & 5% of adults have ADHD. I keep hearing people telling me that drug & alcohol treatment centers in BC still don’t screen for and treat ADHD despite 20%+ of addicts in clinical studies have ADHD.

The Vancouver drug court is not screening for ADHD despite the higher rates of addiction & crime (21-45% of prisoners have ADHD 15 clinical studies show) with ADHD. But ADHD is not all negative, there are billionaires with it, and the blog is called Adult ADD Strengths:) here’s some of the positives of ADHD.

If it’s not acceptable to stigmatize people with Anxiety, Depression or Diabetes to get attention and make money, why is it acceptable to stigmatize people with ADHD to get attention and make money?

If the YMCA can stigmatize ADHD children and claim that  “We don’t see this really as a mistake, we see this as our organization is inclusive and open to everyone.” (YMCA’s Charlene Giovannetti-King VP, Funds Development)

And if no one really calls them on it, then who will stigmatize ADHD children and adults next? What about other mental health condition will be the next to be stigmatized? People with Anxiety Disorders? Bipolar? Depression? If we ADDers are an easy target now, will your condition be next?

I have some action steps at the end of this post if you want to break the silence.

The Vancouver YMCA’s Ad Agency of Record is TBWA \ Vancouver hired to “revamp their brand” This ad seems to be part of this campaign the YMCA is running. “Vancouver YMCA wants to take community back from technology” Seems a bit like technology & the internet is kind of evil lets go back to the 1950’s. Well one thing about the 1950’s there certainly was a lot of stigma about mental health conditions then.

I asked Stefan Hawes  @hawes who’s the managing director at TBWA\ Vancouver via Twitter if his agency did the ad. He has not replied. UPDATE TBWA\Vancouver has admitted they created the ad but still nothing on their website about it. see my followup post TBWA\ Vancouver has not commented on it anywhere. I was first directed to TBWA\Vancouver by @wswalcott on Twitter

wswalcott: @TBWA /Vancouver, you should be ashamed! YMCA ad: p. 10 http://bit.ly/bGN5Zj and p5 http://bit.ly/94B1wD

wswalcott: @Marketing_Mag: TBWA/Van & YMCA ad propagates ignorant #ADHD stigma (p5 http://bit.ly/94B1wD Will next flight make diabetes into a joke?

wswalcott: @globeandmail ROB reports on success of #ymca campaign, forgot to mention blunders http://bit.ly/d3Noac

wswalcott: @petequily, @Marketing_Mag – TBWA\Van “tasked with building the charitable organization’s community credentials” http://bit.ly/aPZ9Uk #adhd

Personally, I don’t think anyone needs to build the YMCA’s community credentials, they’re already well established, which is why this ad is causing this reaction. This ad doesn’t build community credentials in Vancouver, it actually attacks a group that makes up nearly 10% of the community, children with ADHD.

I asked the Greater Vancouver YMCA on Twitter @WDCG_YMCA how many times the ad had run and if it ran in any other media outlets in Vancouver or elsewhere? They have not answered. update it only ran in those 2 papers & ran only once.

After an ADHD parent had the courage to contact them to complain (many adults and children with ADHD don’t go public with it because of stigma around ADHD, the kind the YMCA has just added to) to them they have stopped running the ad. Good move. I’m glad they moved quickly on that.

How the Greater Vancouver YMCA responded to the criticism of the stigma ad also was criticized on Twitter

lizditz: YMCA /Vancouver: Ad ridiculing #ADHD, adding stigma http://bit.ly/c05r00 Many people offended, but YMCAstilldoesn’tgetit

susanmain: @petequily The ad trivializes a serious matter & the YMCA response is just PR-talk that doesn’t address the question.
simonlavoie: YMCA Vancouver ad with ritalin joke: really not funny. Great example of how ad-agency mistake + dumb clients = offensive. #TBWA #YMCA #FAIL

As an adult ADHD coach I could make more money by demonizing ADHD medication to sell my services since so many people have been exposed to stigma about ADHD meds from people who think like the YMCA, vs actual science and research on ADHD.

But I don’t. Because I know for most people with ADHD if they have a doctor that knows enough about ADHD, which is rare in BC (we’re pretty backwards here on ADHD, UBC med schools students only get an hour on ADHD) and they willing to try a few meds and a few doses to get the one that works for them, they’re usually effective.

If they can afford it, most people with ADHD take the long term ADHD meds instead of 3 or so daily dose of short term meds like ritalin or dexedrine.

Even the drug companies are now saying the ADHD medications are useful, but are not a magic bullet for ADHD, that pills don’t teach skills. What they do is put an ADDer in a better position to learn those skills and self awareness. Statistically speaking the best way to manage ADHD is multiple methods.  Here’s 10 ways to manage Adult ADHD. Some professional athletes have ADHD and some of them take ADHD medications.

The Vancouver YMCA could have been more creative & made the point that exercise was useful for ADHD and other mental health conditions without stigmatizing ADHD families for using one well researched method for dealing with ADHD, prescription medication. If ADHD is not treated many ADHD children and adults self medicate with illegal drugs, alcohol and tobacco since they all boost dopamine like ADHD meds, exercise, music, sex, meditation etc do.

The Vancouver YMCA did stop running the ad. I got an email from the YMCA’s Charlene Giovannetti-King which I later found out an ADHD parent who complained about the ad got a similar email.

Dear Mr. Quily,

Shortly after the ad first appeared on Thursday we received a call from a parent of a child with ADHD. As a result, we immediately pulled the ad from circulation. The ad was never intended to make light of children with ADHD and we are very sorry if the wording caused hurt or offense to them or their families.

The YMCA has been supporting children, including those with learning, attention deficit and other disorders and disabilities for the last 125 years in Greater Vancouver. Of the 15,000 children who go to our day and residential camps every year, there are many who take medication, including Ritalin, so we know what it is that these kids live with. That’s why we offer residential camp programs with the option of a one of one counsellor to camper ratio–at the same price as regular camp–to ensure that these kids get the extra support and attention they need to have a successful camping experience. We believe that physical activity is an important part of good mental and physical health and are committed to providing equal access to those opportunities for all children.

Charlene Giovannetti-King
VP, Funds Development
YMCA of Greater Vancouver

It was good the Vancouver YMCA stopped running the ADHD stigma ad. It was good that the YMCA was “very sorry if the wording caused hurt or offense to them or their families.”

But the Vancouver YMCA didn’t say they did anything wrong by running the ad. They didn’t show they understood that the ad stigmatized ADHD families.

But there was no mention of this on the Vancouver YMCA’s website.

There was no media release of this “official apology” to the media after the ad went out to a potential audience of a quarter of a million people.

Here’s a quote from Charlene Giovannetti-King of the YMCA about the ad on CBC Radio’s Early Edition.

“Rick Cluff: So you pulled the ad, did your organization admit to making a mistake here?

Vancouver YMCA VP of Funds Development Charlene Giovannetti-King: We don’t see this really as a mistake, we see this as our organization is inclusive and open to everyone.”


Do you think it’s a mistake to stigmatize families with ADHD?

Families where some decide to treat their ADHD children with medically approved prescription medication for ADHD that have a clinical research background of hundreds if not thousands of peer reviews studies?

Is it “inclusive and open to everyone” to stigmatize children who have ADHD? That doesn’t seem inclusive or open. What do you think?

Bill Stewart is the President of the YMCA of Greater Vancouver and Mike Bushore is the Chair of the board of directors. Do they agree with Charlene Giovannetti-King when she says that this ad wasn’t really a mistake? And it’s an example of how the Vancouver YMCA is ” inclusive and open to everyone”?
What does YMCA Canada and YMCA of the USA think of this ad?

I have some action steps at the end of this post if you want to break the silence.

Transcript of CBC Interview on YMCA ADHD Stigma Ad

CBC Vancouver Early Edition host Rick Cluff Interviews Adult ADHD Pete Quily and Charlene Giovannetti-King the Vice President of Funds Development for the Vancouver YMCA April 21st 2010 approx 8.12am.

I was representing CHADD Vancouver (Children and adults with ADD) an international ADHD support group which I’m on the board of and is the parent group of The Vancouver Adult ADD Support Group which I lead. All my comments after the interview on my blog, website and Twitter do not represent CHADD Vancouver, they’re just my personal opinion.

Rick Cluff: The YMCA has pulled a newspaper ad over complaints that it trivialized ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The ad shows kids wearing sports gear lined up in a gym and the caption reads “ Before video games, before Facebook, before Ritalin, there was basketball”. Pete Quily used the chair of a support group for families dealing with ADHD in Vancouver. This was his reaction to the advertisement.

Pete Quily: Video games and Facebook, those are voluntary activities right, you can use them or not use them. Ritalin is a prescription medication that’s, one of the useful treatments for ADHD, they are implying that they are the same and I mean, would you say it to a diabetic, you don’t need insulin, all you need to do is join the YMCA and play basketball. It almost seems that they are sort of trying to stigmatize ADHD to sort of market their programs.

Rick Cluff: Pete Quily, the Chair of the Vancouver ADHD Support group he was reacting to that advertisement for the YMCA.

(PQ Clarification I’m on the board for CHADD Vancouver and the leader of the Vancouver Adult ADD support group in this interview I’m speaking on behalf of CHADD Vancouver. On my website, blog and twitter I’m speaking for myself)

Charlene Giovannetti-King is the Vice President of Funds Development for the YMCA and is on the line with us now, good morning.

Charlene Giovannetti-King: Good morning.

Rick Cluff: The ad has been pulled.

Charlene Giovannetti-King: The ad has been pulled.

Rick Cluff: And why?

Charlene Giovannetti-King: We pulled the ad because we received a telephone call from a parent who expressed concern about the ad and immediately we pulled that ad because we understood the concern. Although that was not our message, our message was really to encourage people to think about living a balanced lifestyle.

Rick Cluff: Where did the concept come from?

Charlene Giovannetti-King: This is a concept that came from a campaign that we are working on and that we are giving out in the community and sharing in the community and it was just one in a series of ads that we’ve been running.

Rick Cluff: You are trying to portray an image of a balanced lifestyle.

Charlene Giovannetti-King: That’s right.

Rick Cluff: But Mr. Quily says your ad trivializes and stigmatizes ADHD. What are your thoughts now on his assessment of the advertisement?

Charlene Giovannetti-King: We certainly didn’t intend that and we are extremely apologetic if we have offended anybody by that ad therefore, that’s why we pulled the ad instantly as soon as we heard from the parent who expressed concern. We certainly understood the concern and wanted to respond to that very quickly and we did so within 24 hours.

Rick Cluff: So you pulled the ad, did your organization admit to making a mistake here?

Charlene Giovannetti-King: We don’t see this really as a mistake, we see this as our organization is inclusive and open to everyone. We see this as us being responsive to the concern.

Rick Cluff: Was there a formal apology made?

Charlene Giovannetti-King: There was. Both a formal apology to the two people that we heard from. From the mom who phoned and expressed her concern and also to Mr, Quily, we formally apologized to him over the weekend.

Rick Cluff: So what are you replacing this ad with now?

Charlene Giovannetti-King: We continue to run a series of ads and one of the other ads for example is, focuses on camp and the caption on that ad is, “A great leader requires patience, a sense of humor and an appetite for marshmallows” So from that you can tell that the series of ads is really to invoke some conversation and to invoke some interest in people and the community around getting back to their, our values and getting back to a bit, a healthy lifestyle.

Rick Cluff: Charlene, thanks for your time.

Charlene Giovannetti-King: Thanks so much for calling and including us.

Rick Cluff: Charlene Giovannetti-King, the Vice President of the Funds Development for the YMCA. Now the organization has dropped the ad with the slogan. What are your thoughts on this and how this advertising campaign was conceived and delivered? You can call us with your thoughts at 604-662-6690 or send us an email to let us know, our email address is earlyed@cbc.ca

Some actions you can take.

People with ADHD like options. So instead of one, I’me throwing out a couple, maybe pick one that feels intuitively right for you. If you’re extra motivated, do one and then come back and chose another. Or do something different.

The only way to stop stigma against people with ADHD is to stop being silent about it.

1. Express your thoughts on this blog post in the comment section
or do a blog post of your own on the topic and let me know about it. Or tweet it a link and comment on this post, or post it on Facebook. Maybe you could do a guest post here or on another blog explaining what living with ADHD is really like and what kind of stigma children and adults with ADHD have to face so non ADDers can understand. Here’s 12 Ways to Fight Mental Health Stigma With Social Media. Know any more?

2. Contact the media. The more people that do so, the more likely the media will take it seriously enough to do a followup story on it. The BC Liberal party (which isn’t really very liberal) has a good free contact list for letters to the editor and ways to contact talk radio too.

3. Contact the YMCA and them some questions
about why they ran that ad that stigmatized ADHD families? Why haven’t they responded on their website? Update they have done an apology on their website see this post, but you can’t find it anywhere on their homepage Are they trying to hide the story?

Also ask them to explain this “We don’t see this (ad) really as a mistake, we see this as our organization is inclusive and open to everyone” And let them know how you feel about the ad and their response. BUT please do so in a respectful, productive way vs. a counterproductive one.

Vancouver YMCA on Twitter @WDCG_YMCA

Contact The Greater Vancouver YMCA

31 thoughts on “YMCA Stigmatizes ADHD Families. Acceptable To Stigmatize Children With Mental Health Conditions For Money?”

  1. The YMCA took a wise first step by pulling the “Negative Ritalin” advertisement. Sadly, they and their ad agency did not follow through by publicly apologising/admitting they made an error.
    Ms. Giovannetti-King’s mishandling of the YMCA’s reputation which claims to be an all inclusive and supportive organisation has been tarnished by not making complete amends. Further compunded by both Giovannetti-King and TBWA/Vancouver lack of business acumen evident by their lack of monitoring Social Media during a campaign launch. The ad was not pulled until a parent called and voiced concern.
    Basic public relation skills for 2010 – when you make a mistake, admit it. This simple, authentic strategy trumps hiding behind the ivory tower. Hiding there only creates the optics that you are weak and are not human enough to apologise.
    True community leaders admit their mistakes, fix them, and move on. This is the example we want for our children not an organisation that stigmatises those who struggle to fit in.

  2. I agree Janice, we all make mistakes, lord knows I’ve made quite a few, but when you stigmatize tens of thousands of Vancouverites who have ADHD (8% of kids, 5% of adults have ADHD) and say you’re sorry others were offended but deny you made a mistake AND claim you’re open and inclusive while stigmatizing them in the process

    “Rick Cluff: So you pulled the ad, did your organization admit to making a mistake here?

    Vancouver YMCA VP of Funds Development Charlene Giovannetti-King: We don’t see this really as a mistake, we see this as our organization is inclusive and open to everyone.””

    it’s like adding insult to injury. You’re right on basic PR, maybe in their PR strategy is from the 1950’s too. They haven’t responded to the other people on twitter who are commenting about it, seems like an ostrich strategy.

  3. Hi, I just called the “Y” and got a name and direct number. Patricia and her number is 604-622-4952. Is ther a better person to contact? I was unable to speak with her becuase she is in training, I was told that she works regular hours 8:30-5.

    I would respond to the ad by never again patronising them or any of their facilities, or associates (as much as possible.)

    This ad is demoralizing! I know I have ADD and have a hard enough time already…thanks YMCA! You guys keep up the good work!!

    Anyway! On a much lighter note, and a far more positive one, check out Julie & Julia recently on DVD – ADD is mentioned, discussed, and some of the events that follow I can totally relate to. I’m not sure if this was intentional or not, but CONGRATULATIONS HOLLYWOOD!!!! Thank you for pushing ADD into the spotlight! The only thing that would have made this movie even beter is if Amy Adam’s character actually went for testing and they pushed some traits of ADD though they do mention the inability to finish things and less than stellar housekeeping. After the movie, I wanted to do the exact same thing – watch the moive.

    Do you have a list of global ADD and ADHD groups or people that can be contacted?

  4. You’re welcome Gina, and thanks to you for all your work holding the adhd stigmatizers to account for their ignorance, hate and stigma.

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