In the last decade, there has been an explosion of cases of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder among Canadian children. Everyone knows a Grade 2 student who cannot stop fidgeting in class or focus on the lesson of the day. With Ritalin, and other forms of therapy, these children can learn to live and thrive with ADHD.
However, ADHD in adults has not received the same level of recognition. Many in the medical community still associate the disorder only with children – even though almost two-thirds of patients never outgrow their symptoms. The disorder is also highly genetic, making it probable that if a child has it, so does one of her parents.
A failure to properly recognize, and treat, the disorder among adults costs everyone. The disorder's key symptoms – inattention, hyperactivity and impulsiveness – can become a source of shame and embarrassment at work, and prevent creative people from reaching their potential. A Harvard study reported that untreated ADHD costs the workplace an estimated $70-billion a year.
Adults with untreated ADHD are also at significant risk of developing problems such as low self-esteem, addictions and obesity.
Although the prevalence rate for the disorder in adults is about 5 per cent, there is a shortage of adult psychiatrists in Canada who specialize in attention disorders, notes Umesh Jain, an ADHD researcher at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Many patients end up being misdiagnosed with anxiety and depression. A 2006 U.S. study found that only about 10 per cent of adults with ADHD receive appropriate treatment. “Many attempts have been made to educate psychiatrists about adult ADHD, but many doctors still don't believe in it,” says Dr. Jain.
That leaves many people earning below their potential, or masking the disorder by choosing highly intense professions or extreme sports to give them the stimulation they crave. Once these roles end, they can have tremendous difficulty coping.
Adult psychiatrists and family doctors should become more aware of ADHD in adults. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders should clarify how it presents and evolves over time. With effective treatment – including medication and psychotherapy – a person's life trajectory can be dramatically altered, and the underlying explanation for years of irritability, suffering and other problems can be correctly identified.