From positive psychology to psychopathology: the continuum of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder

TitleFrom positive psychology to psychopathology: the continuum of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2018
AuthorsGreven, CU, Buitelaar, JK, Salum, GA
JournalJournal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry
KeywordsAttention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, continuum, dimension, positive psychology, quantitative trait


Integration of positive psychology into clinical research and treatment has been slow. This integration can be facilitated by the conceptualisation of mental disorders as the high, symptomatic extreme of continuous normal variation. This assumes that there is also a low, positive extreme, which is, however, unchartered territory. This study aims to examine how well current measures capture the low extreme of mental disorder continua, using attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as an example.


The ability of three validated scales to capture ADHD as a continuous trait was examined using Item Response Theory in a sample of 9,882 adolescents from the UK population-representative Twins Early Development Study. These scales were: the Strengths and Weakness of ADHD Symptoms and Normal behaviour scale (SWAN), Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ - hyperactivity subscale), and Conners' Parent Rating Scale (Conners).


Only the SWAN reliably differentiated interindividual differences between participants lying at any level of the continuous ADHD latent trait, including the extreme low, positive end (z-scores from -3 to +3). The SDQ showed low reliability across the ADHD latent trait. In contrast, the Conners performed best at differentiating individuals scoring at or above the mean to the high symptomatic range (z-scores from 0 to +3). The SWAN was the only measure to provide indicators of 'positive mental health', endorsed in the presence of particularly good attentive abilities.


Scales such as the SWAN that reliably capture ADHD as a continuous trait, including the positive end, are important for not missing meaningful variation in population-based studies. Indicators of positive mental health may be helpful in clinical practice, as positive attributes have been shown to directly influence as well as buffer negative effects of psychiatric symptoms.