Like many of us, Judith Bull held onto her school reports long after leaving school. Looking at them now, age 56, she reads out some of the teachers’ comments.
“If Judith could just apply herself, if she could concentrate more, if she could get her homework in on time… She’s got the potential, but she’s not applying herself.”
Judith flicks through the reports, but they’re all the same.
“Judith must make a greater effort,” she reads out. “Judith could improve her standard with a real effort. Disappointing.”
She sets the reports aside.
“When you hear that about yourself, the message you get is that you have to be a better person,” she says. “A lack of concentration isn’t at the forefront of your mind. You don’t know why you can’t concentrate. You don’t know why you are a certain way.”
The pattern in Judith’s school reports began when she was around eight years old. It took four decades for someone to figure out why.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common neurodevelopmental disorder, affecting around 800,000 Australians. ADHD can impair a person’s ability to self-regulate and control thoughts, emotions, words and actions.
There are three types of ADHD: inattentive, hyperactive-impulsive, and combined inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive. A person with inattentive ADHD, for example, may have difficulty focusing their attention at work or in school, while a person with hyperactive-impulsive ADHD may be restless or ‘always on the go’, or act without thinking.
Not every person with ADHD displays all the symptoms, nor does every person with ADHD experience the symptoms of ADHD to the same level of severity. Symptoms of ADHD can be similar to symptoms of anxiety, depression or other mental illness, so it’s important to seek professional health advice for a proper diagnosis.
Undiagnosed and untreated, ADHD can have lifelong impacts on individuals and their quality of life. People living with untreated ADHD may find it challenging to maintain relationships or employment, which can lead to low self-esteem and mental ill health. However, early diagnosis and proper treatment can greatly improve individual outcomes and overall quality of life.
ADHD is most commonly diagnosed in childhood but it is increasingly being diagnosed in adults.
Symptoms of ADHD
A person with ADHD may:
- experience mood swings
- make seemingly careless mistakes at school or work
- find it hard to sustain attention
- not seem to listen when spoken to directly
- have difficulty following instructions or completing tasks
- avoid sustained mental effort at work or in school
- be easily distracted by other stimuli
- be forgetful in daily activities
- lose or misplace things
- find it hard to remain seated
- feel or act impatient
- talk excessively
- speak without thinking
- experience sleep difficulties.
Much of the literature and many of resources around ADHD tend to focus on ADHD in children, not adults. This can inadvertently perpetrate the myth that ADHD only affects young people. Until quite recently, it was commonly thought that children outgrew ADHD during adolescence, when in fact more than 3 in 4 children diagnosed with ADHD continue to experience the symptoms into adulthood. For this reason – among others – there are many adults living with ADHD today, like Judith, who only received their diagnosis in adulthood.
Mark Brandtman has a similar story about his own adult diagnosis.
“I didn’t get treated until I was 40,” he says. “Nobody ever suggested I had ADHD. In fact, my son was diagnosed with ADHD before I was. We were in the paediatrician’s room when he was eight and the doctor was describing [my son’s] behaviour as ADHD, and I thought ‘How does this guy know me so well?’”
Like Judith, Mark can clearly remember a pattern of effort and frustration prior to his diagnosis and treatment.
“My professional life prior to treatment was arduous,” says Mark. “University was torture. Everything was effortful. I didn’t think I was dumb but I couldn’t believe how many dumb things I seemed to do. It really impacted my quality of life.”
Getting an ADHD diagnosis
Judith was diagnosed with ADHD three months before her 50th birthday. Like Mark, it was the first time someone had suggested she might have ADHD. In hindsight, she says, the diagnosis makes perfect sense, but for a long time there was no clear answer.
“Being a kid or a teenager, especially in the 70s and 80s, ADHD is not something that occurs to you,” says Judith. “It’s more a sense of failure that you have than it is ‘I can’t concentrate’, so it becomes more about how you feel about yourself, not about something you might have.”
ADHD requires a professional diagnosis. If you believe you, your child, or someone for whose care you’re responsible for may have ADHD, you should see your GP as a first step. They may carry out an initial assessment and then provide the necessary referral to see a specialist, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist or – in the case of children – a paediatrician.
There is no one test to diagnose ADHD, so the assessment is made using a wide range of information and diagnostic tools. Mark explains that the scope of information required for a diagnosis, plus the limited availability of treating specialists and the associated costs, can make getting a diagnosis difficult.
“Some psychiatrists want to see school reports, talk to your friends and family, understand your employment history – things like that,” he says. “Trying to get a diagnosis for ADHD can be quite expensive, and difficult to find people who work with it. There’s currently no public service diagnoses for ADHD in Australia.”
“Everyone’s life up until the diagnosis is completely different, so the reaction to it can vary,” says Judith. “For me, it wasn’t a reason to go out and celebrate. I thought ‘Okay, what am I going to do with this information now?’”
Treatment and support for ADHD
Treatment for ADHD is often multi-modal and may include education, medication, lifestyle changes, psychotherapy, behaviour therapy, vocational counselling, and skills training. Therapy may be helpful to teach organisational or social skills, depending on the needs of the individual. Support groups and ADHD coaching can provide additional support.
Finding the right treatment or combination of treatments for an individual may take time, and while there is no cure for ADHD, proper and sustained treatment can greatly improve a person’s quality of life.
Since his diagnosis and subsequent treatment, Mark has become an ADHD coach and mentor, and now provides support and skills sessions to people who are newly diagnosed with ADHD.
For Judith, her diagnosis and treatment arrived when she was at university – her third attempt at completing a degree. In addition to studying full-time and navigating a new diagnosis, she was also working full-time. This time though, Judith was able to successfully complete her undergraduate degree and a masters.
“I had to find new ways of learning and studying that worked for me,” she says. “My experience and knowledge so far of ADHD is that if you know what you have to do, and you have boundaries and structure, you tend to be a lot better at getting things done.”
Unfortunately, myths and stigma still surround ADHD. However, education around ADHD is improving every day, helped in part by an increased number of diagnosis referrals during and since Covid-19 lockdowns that the disruptions to routine and opportunities for self-reflection helped to trigger.
As well as understanding more about ADHD, like the fact that its symptoms can be lifelong and can be diagnosed in adulthood, an important next step in overcoming stigma is realising that that people living with successfully managed ADHD can thrive.
“People with ADHD tend to be very intuitive, perceptible people,” says Mark. “Often they’re innovative thinkers. Our long-term memory tends to be really good, so in the workplace, people with ADHD might have excellent corporate memory, which can be a real asset to organisations.”
Judith has taken a similar approach in her own life.
“I try and own my ADHD,” she says. “I try to incorporate it into my life and then make adjustments around it. You have to put strategies in place otherwise life will just continue to be, possibly, a bit of chaos.
“It’s about being self-aware, and also forgiving yourself. I don’t see ADHD as a disability or a disorder, I just see it as a difference.”
Additional information and support
If you are experiencing a mental health issue, a good place to start the discussion about getting help is with your GP. You can also call our Medibank Mental Health Phone Support on 1800 644 325, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for advice about any mental health or emotional concern.
If you, or someone you know, need immediate support or medical assistance, contact 000 in an emergency or Lifeline on 13 11 14.
For more tips and information on how to take care of your mental health, visit:
Medibank Better Minds
Whether you’re unsure of what you’re feeling, looking out for a family member, or you simply need to hear another voice, we’re here to advise, guide and support you through your mental health journey.