ADHD, or ‘Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder’, is a relatively controversial mental health condition. While it has traditionally been thought of as something that made it difficult for children to sit still or pay attention in school or at home, new research is painting a different picture of what ADHD is. Many people debate about whether ADHD is a diagnosis that’s overused (or even legitimate at all), about what the best way of treating ADHD is, as well as about whether you can have ADHD as an adult. While there is still a lot about ADHD that we don’t understand, it is clear now that ADHD is not just a condition for children.
As a psychiatric nurse practitioner, I’ve had many adults ask me if they suffer from ADHD. They come with complaints of difficulty focusing at work, staying on task with challenging projects, ‘spacing out’ while someone is talking to them, or any number of other problems related to focus, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. While, at times, there is something else going on that better explains these concerns, many adults are surprised to find that, despite being 30, 50, or even 70, they have ADHD!
ADHD is a chronic psychiatric condition which, despite often first being seen in childhood, can manifest at any age. Research now suggests that adults who have ADHD may have had it all along and got along fine until the demands of adult life finally overwhelmed their ability to compensate, or that adult ADHD may be an entirely different neuropsychiatric condition than childhood ADHD. Either way, people living with these symptoms should feel some validation knowing that there is now scientific research supporting their experiences.
ADHD is considered a ‘neurodevelopmental’ disorder, meaning that it is caused by some alteration in a person’s neuropsychiatric development. Research suggests that this may occur in utero, which means the by the time you are born your brain may already be predisposed to experience symptoms of ADHD. This is why, historically, ADHD was only diagnosed if symptoms were seen in early to mid-childhood. As I mentioned a moment ago though, recent research suggests the real picture is more complicated. It could just be that some people are able to skate by through hard work and dedicated effort until they reach adulthood and the competing demands of bills, a job (or multiple jobs), a family, and other obligations prove too much for your brain to manage. On the other hand though, other research suggests adult ADHD may be a totally different condition than ‘normal’ ADHD. Whether its one or the other, the practical implications are the same.
So, what do we do then for adults who have ADHD? The treatment options are largely the same. For children, non-medicinal treatment often focuses on maximizing helpful behaviors and minimizing unhelpful behaviors. This is often using a type of therapy called behavioral therapy, or some similar therapy built using behavioral therapy. It is a very practical form of treatment, focusing on the here-and-now of what your daily life looks like and how it can work better for you. Given how beneficial this type of treatment is for young people with the same diagnosis, a form of this same therapy is also often used for adults.
Medication-based treatment for childhood ADHD is also much the same as adult treatment. There are two primary types of medications used for treating ADHD in adults, stimulants (methylphenidate compounds and amphetamine compounds) and non-stimulants (antidepressant-type medications). These each have their pros and cons and, if medication is appropriate, there generally is a specific option that’s better after a discussion with your psychiatric provider.
I have worked with numerous individuals with childhood and adult ADHD in my practice and have pursued advanced study in the diagnosis of ADHD and I hope you will consider me as your treatment partner in this.
If you feel like the concerns described here are something you can relate to and you are looking for a knowledgeable and trustworthy partner in your treatment, I encourage you to call and set up an appointment.
“Girl Reading,” courtesy of Jan Fidler, Morguefile.com; “Path to Heaven,” courtesy of gags9999, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0)