Updated 14 July 2017

ADHD: not just for kids

Many university students struggling to just get down to studying may be shocked to learn that they could have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

Once considered primarily a childhood condition, ADHD, as it is commonly called, is now known to be a lifelong condition for as many as half of those troubled with its hallmark symptoms of inattention, distractibility, impulsivity and emotional instability starting before age seven.

Only evident as pressure mounts
Despite its persistence, the disorder often remains undiagnosed for a decade or more, finally becoming debilitating when academic, social or work pressures mount after high school.

That's why ADHD seems to break out like an epidemic on university campuses every year.

"The structure of high school is such that students with ADHD can slip through unnoticed," says Robert Resnick, a professor of psychology at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, USA.

He's also the author of "The Hidden Disorder: The Clinician's Guide to Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Adults."

"But university is a different story," Resnick adds. "The stepped-up demands of higher education, coupled with the absence of many familiar external structures and controls, bring these students problems with organisation and distractibility to the forefront. They just can't fake academic performance any longer. When referred to the college's support services for help, they find out - many of them for the first time - that they have had ADHD for many years."

Gender no indicator
Female college students are just as likely as male students to be affected, despite the disproportionate number of boys diagnosed with ADHD in the early grades, says Resnick, a former president of the American Psychological Association.

"The condition is no respecter of gender," Resnick explains. "However, the symptoms in young males and females are often different. Boys with ADHD tend to be more active and aggressive, which results in earlier referral for assessment by parents and teachers. In elementary school, the ratio of boys diagnosed with ADHD to girls diagnosed is three- or four-to-one. On the university campus, the ratio is one-to-one."

Two-thirds reach university unaware of condition
Beth Howlett, clinical coordinator of the Counselling Centre at Widner University in Chester, Pennsylvania., is familiar with the phenomenon.

She estimates that only about one-third of the ADHD students she works with were diagnosed before they began university.

"Elementary and secondary teachers today are doing a better job spotting the symptoms of this disorder early," Howlett says. "But there are still many students, particularly girls, who slip between the cracks before they start college."

What to look out for
According to Howlett, students with ADHD tend to have a familiar litany of complaints. These include:

  • Inability to concentrate in class or on homework assignments.
  • Inability to grasp the meaning of what they've read without repeated re-readings.
  • Difficulty following a professor's train of thought, paying attention through long lectures or labs, or taking notes in an organised way.
  • Susceptibility to distractions that don't seem to affect their classmates.
  • Reliance on stimulants, such as coffee, as a means of focusing on important tasks.
  • Abusing substances, such as alcohol, illegal drugs or prescription medications, as a means of managing stress.

Reading usually shows up as a problem
"What I call the 'burden of reading' - the sheer volume of mastery of the written word required in virtually every university course - is one of the first things that shows up as a problem for the student with untreated ADHD," Howlett says.

Symptoms more subtle in adults
Although the official criteria for diagnosing ADHD later in life is identical to those confirming the disorder in young children, it is increasingly recognised that the condition is often more subtly expressed in adulthood.

As a recent article in American Family Physician notes, the "hyperactivity common in ADHD children is less likely to be overt in adults, and the on-the-go drive of the ADHD child is frequently described by ADHD adults as restlessness, difficulty relaxing or feeling "chronically on edge."

"ADHD results in clinically significant impairment," Resnick says. "These are not students that experience difficulty paying attention from time to time in class, or occasionally can't remember something important. These are students who are chronically impulsive, distracted and disorganised. They don't forget where they left their car keys. They forget where they left their cars."

ADHD is treatable
According to both Resnick and Howlett, the good news is that ADHD in adults is treatable, using the same behavioural and psychological approaches and medications that help younger patients with ADHD.

Medications include methylphenidate (Ritalin), dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine), pemoline (Cylert), and methamphetamine (Desoxyn).

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, American ADHD college students qualify for a range of accommodations on campus, too, such as therapy, along with assistance organising their life, study skills, test-taking and securing adequate lecture or laboratory notes from their classes.

Howlett also says ADHD college students appropriately identified and served often fare better academically and socially than their non-ADHD peers.

"When they are diagnosed early and plugged in to the right resources, students with ADHD do well," she says. "But if the ADHD is left untreated, such students often grow increasingly disorganised, impulsive, frustrated and, ultimately, unsuccessful in this very competitive environment." – (HealthScout News)


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ADHD Expert

Dr Renata Schoeman has been in full-time private practice as a general psychiatrist (child, adolescent and adult psychiatry) since 2008, currently based in Oude Westhof (Bellville). Renata also holds appointments as senior lecturer in Leadership (USB) and as a virtual faculty member of USB Executive Development’s Neuroleadership programme. She serves on the advisory boards of various pharmaceutical companies, as a director of the Psychiatric Management Group (PsychMG) and is the co-convenor of the South African Society of Psychiatrist (SASOP) special interest group for adult ADHD, and co-founder of the Goldilocks and The Bear Foundation ( She is passionate about corporate mental health awareness and uses her neuroscience background to assist leaders in equipping them to become balanced, healthy and dynamic leaders that take their own and their team’s emotional, intellectual, social health and physical needs into account. Renata is academically active and enjoys research and collaborative work, has published in many peer-reviewed journals, and has presented at local and international congresses. She is regularly invited to present at conferences and to engage with the media. During her post-graduate studies, she trained at Harvard, Boston in neurocognition and neuroimaging. Her awards include, amongst others, the Young Minds in Psychiatry award from the American Psychiatric Association, the Discovery Foundation Fellowship award, a Thuthuka award from the NRF, and a MRC Fellowship. She also received the Top MBA student award and the Director’s award from USB for 2015. She was a finalist for the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa’s Businesswoman of the Year Award for 2016, and received the Excellence in Media Work award from SASOP during 2016.

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