Distracted by nurture or nature?

Examining the roots of ADHD in university students

  • Aranda Adams

“That’s just my ADHD.”

You’ve heard this phrase from friends, classmates or perhaps even yourself.

Attributing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to disorderly behaviour now seems like the norm.

In a society fettered with distractions, it has become increasingly difficult to discern between the products of the former, and a proper attention deficit disorder.

Dr. Robert Twigg, a psychotherapist in Winnipeg, has dealt with many cases of perceived and actual attention disorders, and holds an approach to treatment that assesses lifestyle influences before pointing to a clinical medicated assessment.

“A lot of kids get diagnosed with (ADHD) because they have trouble sitting still, (or) they have trouble paying attention,” Twigg says.

“The quick answer is (ADHD), and the solution is medication,” which demonstrates the complexity of the diagnosis from the get-go.

While Dr. Tannis Wiebe, a child development pediatrician in Winnipeg, confirms that misdiagnosis is frequent, she stresses that many diagnoses are missed - especially in girls because the same hyperactive behaviour exhibited in boys is not aroused.

Wiebe explains that girls often cruise through school longer.

When you’re bright, and hyperactive behaviour does not restrict you, “you don’t need to listen step by step to get by,” says Wiebe.

This brings up a seeming misconception of ADHD: contrary to popular belief, the disorder does not correlate to IQ level. 

“ADHD does not mean you are not smart. With ADHD you are more prone to have ... conditions (such as) anxiety, learning disabilities - those sort of things,” Wiebe clarifies.

But what about later on in life, when busier and complex situations arise, such as university?

Once we are aware of the symptomatic behaviour of ADHD, it’s easy to concoct a self-diagnosis.

However, according to Twigg, the roots of our social behaviours should be evaluated preceding medication.

“We probably all have some of the behaviours of the diagnosis, or experiences,” Twigg says.

Losing your keys, experiencing boredom in class and tapping your pen, forgetting deadlines and commitments - these are behaviours that point to ADHD if they are intermittent.

“As adults, if you are of normal intelligence, you can develop your own coping strategies,” Wiebe says.

Perhaps inattentiveness can be managed by some, but among the distractions we are faced with, including cellphones, the Internet, finances, relationships, and any other interferences, you may wonder whether there is an innocuous and legitimate cure-all.

We may think, “Shouldn’t I be able to handle all this?” or, “Why can’t I get everything done?”

When asked whether our distracted society gets confused with ADHD, Wiebe confirms it probably does, but it doesn’t cause ADHD.

“It is not helpful to have all these interruptions,” Wiebe says. “We live in a society where we expect things instantly. ... If peoples’ phones go off, they can probably ignore the sound, but they are curious about who has called or who has tweeted or whatever. So (they are) not impulsively doing that. They could ignore it if they wanted to, but they choose to answer it and pick it up.”

While one can take a self-diagnostic test to reveal whether they are a candidate for medical treatment of ADHD, Twigg indicates that one distinguishing factor of the disorder is determining the duration during which someone has borne the experiences.

During assessment, Twigg not only looks at a patient’s lifestyle and the types of stimulants in one’s environment, but in particular, when these behaviours started to impair the individual’s functionality.

For a university student, the most helpful question to ask is, “When did problems with attention and getting things done start occurring?” 

Twigg advises that if the answer is “later in life,” perhaps during high school or university, it is unlikely medication is required.

Alternately put, according to Twigg, what one must decipher is: “Do you have so much on your plate that you can’t manage it all? Or do you have (an attention disorder) that you keeps you from focusing on the ability to manage it?”

Twigg and Wiebe acknowledge an increase in prescribed Ritalin among university students who do not have a disorder, but use it as a study aide.

However, Twigg also reveals a synonymous relationship in regards to the performance levels society expects in academia and sport by comparing the abuse of Ritalin to performance enhancing drugs.

“We expect athletes to break records,” Twigg says. “We live in a very performance-oriented, achievement-oriented, conforming-oriented culture. And there are real reasons to use these medications, but they are being used in ways that (are not legitimate).”

He warns that introducing higher expectations can transcend into other areas of life, with detrimental consequences if you depend on drugs to maintain performance.

Before medication is used to cope with either a genuine diagnosis of ADHD or similar behavioural experiences, the common situations highlighted by Wiebe and Twigg are simple: removing distractions from your environment, getting sufficient rest and eating well.

Published in Volume 67, Number 13 of The Uniter (November 28, 2012)

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