Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, is a disorder that involves an imbalance in neurotransmitters in the brain, and more worryingly, one in which is overwhelmingly unrecognised in society as we currently know it.
What do you think of instantly upon hearing this word? I suspect it’ll often bring up images of unruly, hyperactive children whose lack of attention and fidgety nature make their parents lives rather challenging. Perhaps it also conjures impressions of young boys or girls engaging in anti social behaviour or achieving poor academic results. In fact, the symptoms of ADHD are said to begin to appear between the ages of 3 and 6! So this is not an entirely inaccurate representation of what the disorder can look like to onlookers!
In short, there are likely many connotations that one might associate with this particular disorder and up until recently, I was among the many who simply believed it to be either a sign of bad parenting or a childhood disorder that one grew out of once they reached the adult stage of their lives.
Suffice to say, I was wrong.
In fact, it was only a few months ago when I spoke to a friend of mine (who was diagnosed with ADHD as a child) that I realised just how misconstrued my perception of the disorder was. I was surprised to learn that not only did this condition affect adults to the similar extent that it affected children, but it was one where many of the symptoms overlapped with those associated with suffering from anxiety and depression! For instance, to name just a few of the symptoms associated with adult ADHD, people with the condition often have their mental functions impeded by problems such as a poor memory, low motivation, impulsive behaviour and inadequate social skills.
‘I could have been a doctor […] I could have been a pharmacist, I could have been anything I wanted to be’
Chris Ecarius , a retired 62 year old who went undiagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder until his pre-retirement years
This is supported by evidence which suggests that up to 30% of children and 25-40% of adults with ADHD also have a co-existing anxiety disorder. Furthermore, up to 70% of those with ADHD will be treated for depression at some point in their lives, therefore lending credit to this theory!
Nevertheless, despite having had a thirst for knowledge regarding mental health issues for several years now, the idea that many sufferers of anxiety and depression could have an underlying issue of Adult ADHD was an interesting one. In fact, the more I read into the disorder, the more it dawned on me that it was possible – even likely – that I too had some form of ADHD.
Fast forwards 3 months later, and here I am, diagnosed with ADHD, on medication and with a markedly improved quality of life.
As highlighted above, ADHD is not simply a childhood disorder; in fact, it is estimated that approximately 4 percent of American adults over the age of 18 deal with it on a daily basis. Furthermore, the notion that a child can somehow ‘outgrow’ the condition beyond a certain age is incorrect, seeing that two-thirds or more of children with ADHD continue to have symptoms and challenges in adulthood that require treatment.
On the other side of the spectrum, you have the excessive amount of adults who display no apparent symptoms of ADHD in childhood, and yet are diagnosed with the condition at some stage during their working lives. Why is this? How did these people go about their adolescent years without anyone picking up on any behavioural abnormalities?
It is important to highlight just how harmful the perpetuated stereotype of ADHD is. After all, we’ve established that it does not always involve engaging in hyperactive activity and the belief that it does underlines how misconstrued the term has become over time. If we merely judged those who suffer with the disorder by societal standards, the results would be catastrophic for those whose issues with anxiety and/or depression were unknowingly caused by ADHD. Imagine having a friend or family member go through their lives enduring so much pain – all without even once considering that this under-recognized condition may be the true cause of their emotional difficulties!
The truth is that many people simply overlook the attention deficit side of the disorder, which is not as easy to distinguish compared to the hyperactive symptoms and even less easy to treat without some form of outside help.
The difficulty with identifying and dealing with the attention impairment side of ADHD is specifically one that revolves around the decision-making process. When we receive information that requires us to take action, these incoming items are matrixed into one of four categories: urgent and important (do now), urgent and not important (delegate), important but not urgent (to-do list), and neither important nor urgent (trash). Any mentally healthy adult can generally assign this information into one of the groupings above without much difficulty. However, add ADHD into the equation and things get a lot more complicated!
‘We thought that disruptive kids would [later] have disruptive lives […] but we discovered that it’s actually the inattention and the disorganisation that causes greater difficulties in adulthood’
David W Goodman, a psychiatrist who directs the Adult Attention Deficit Disorder Centre of Maryland
The reasons as to why this may not be picked up on in childhood vary, but the predominant theory is that while children are afforded with a sense of structure from an early age, this begins to dissipate in adulthood. Think about it. As children our lives are typically follow a routine from the moment we wake up until we go back to sleep. From brushing your teeth to going to school to doing your homework, all of these things are structured for you by either your parents or simply as a result of going through the education system. The trouble tends to occur after this structured school experience has ended and the question of finding a job, paying bills, getting into relationships, having children and generally maintaining a healthy social and work life balance is placed entirely into your hands.
‘As an employee, I wasn’t very good because I was inconsistent […] I’m brilliant, and then I’m rubbish. And that’s obviously frustrating for an employer to contend with because they don’t know which Jannine they are going to get’
Jannine Harris, a special needs teacher from Northampton, had to go through more than 40 jobs before settled on her current job role
Due to this, many adults experience issues with handling the reigns that this individual responsibility entails, and this manifests itself primarily into the following problems:
- Anxiety (fear of making more mistakes)
- Sadness (about lost opportunities for success)
- Insomnia (worries about things left undone)
Indeed, a report into the socioeconomic impact of ADHD, conducted by Demos, a cross-party think-tank, found that these factors can be associated with lack of career planning, poor workplace productivity and increased job instability.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? Is your story one where you experience difficulties following through on seemingly reasonable targets? Do you consistently fall short of your aims and perhaps feel ashamed of your inability to live up to your potential? Maybe you simply have trouble with being able to do what you want or need without seemingly trivial obstacles getting in the way?
Treatment for ADHD
There are currently two types of treatment available in terms of medication; stimulants, which work on the dopamine and norepinephrine imbalance in the brain, and non-stimulants, which focus on other neurotransmitters in the brain that help support dopamine and norepinephrine function.
There is also the added benefit of this class of medication ( namely the stimulants) in that they should start to work within a few hours. Thus, you will be able to tell within a very short space of time if they are effective and more importantly, if they result in an overall increase in your quality of life! This can be quite refreshing considering how other types of prescribed medication (such as SSRIs/antidepressants) can take up to a month before any clear results can be determined.
Ideally those with the condition are diagnosed and treated long before they reach adulthood. Yet, due to the aforementioned reasons, this unfortunately does not always turn out to be the case. In some scenarios, the individual in question could quite easily reach their twilight years before the possibility of them having ADHD is even considered! This is particularly precarious seeing as an elderly or even a middle aged person is likely to suffer with a poorer support network. Subsequently, without anyone close to them observing their behaviour and/or emotional difficulties, the chances of them being recognised as having ADHD significantly decease!
On a more personal level, while I can only speak of my own experience of medication, I can safely say that it has been a positive one. After being prescribed a stimulant called dexamphetamine and having been on it for a few weeks as of this post, I find that it has greatly increased my cognitive ability, ensuring I am more focused, motivated and thus more content with life in general.
‘You’ll notice that you’re more efficient, that you’re more able to focus and get that task done that used to take you three hours’
Dr. Susan Samuels, MD, psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medicine
If you are reluctant to take medication, there are other options that are also perfectly valid when it comes to attempting to control the symptoms of ADHD – many of which are listed here. These include engaging in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, taking note of daily reminders for appointments, meetings, or other responsibilities and limiting the distractions around you whilst attempting to get work done.
In addition, when dealing with the struggles of being impulsive and having a tendency to overreact to things emotionally ( a symptom in which I myself am guilty of!) it can be helpful to attempt to teach yourself to take a minute to stop and think before you blurt out something, or act out inappropriately. It might also help to write down your immediate reaction instead of vocalising it in cases where you believe that this could do more harm than good!
What others can do to support you
When it comes to societal expectations towards those who suffer with this condition, there is much that can be done. Ideally speaking, family members and close friends could be more vigilant of the prospect that a loved one is suffering with ADHD – yet this is hard to do considering how poorly recognised Adult ADHD is as a condition!
It is for this reason that raising awareness of ADHD and deconstructing its stereotypes is of prime importance. This should extend not only to educational institutions, but also to the workplace as well, seeing that is where the vast majority of adults spend a significant period of their lives.
‘People with ADHD can be creative, energetic and dynamic […] But too many people go through life without the support they need’
The impact of an individual having ADHD without being aware of it, according to the think-tank Demos
According to Michelle Beckett, CEO and founder of ADHD Action – a charity that is lobbying the government to create provision for those with the condition, this is something that could not only be helpful to the individual, but also to the employer themselves. In fact, something common among people with ADHD is their ability (in the right circumstances) to ‘hyperfocus’ – which in itself it the tendency to focus on certain passions, interests or work very intensely. If this could be applied in a work setting, it could prove to be very useful in terms of general performance and productivity!
Additionally, once an individual with ADHD has been identified, the next phase is to provide support strategies in order to make the most out what they are capable of. This sentiment is echoed by Simone Vibert, a researcher at Demos and author of the report into the socioeconomic impact of ADHD. She also makes a point of encouraging employees with the disorder to approach an organisation named Access to Work – this is a publicly funded employment support programme that provides grants to those with disabilities. Through this and the various other methods of self-help highlighted, an individual with the disorder can thrive and go on to lead more productive and fulfilling lives.
Did you know?
ADHD, AD/HD, and ADD all refer to the same disorder. The only difference is that some people have hyperactivity and some people don’t.
Symptoms of ADHD typically first appear between the ages of 3 and 6.
Research has shown that if a child has ADHD, there’s a 30-40% chance that one of his or her parents has it.
The definition and diagnosis of the ADHD have evolved over the years. For instance, in the 1940s, a variety of brain disorders were labelled “minimal brain dysfunction”, which was refined to “immaturity” of attention and impulse control in the 1950s.
According to Dr. Joseph Biederman, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, ADHD may be one of the costliest medical conditions in the United States: “Evaluating, diagnosing and treating this condition may not only improve the quality of life, but may save billions of dollars every year.”
Do you suspect that you might suffer from ADHD? Does any of the above information ring true for you? Was your childhood marked by periods of extreme inattentiveness and/or hyperactivity? More importantly, has this seeped in to your adult life and if so, have you sought out treatment for it? Let me know what your thoughts are of this disorder in the comment section below!
Emotional support helplines:
Samaritans :116 123
Rethink Mental Illness advice line 0300 5000 927 (Monday to Friday 09:30-16:00; local rate)
Sane Line:0845 767 8000
Mind also has a useful guide of support and services, which can be found by clicking the link right here