When Keith Shaff, 36, was promoted into a leadership position at work, his life changed in more ways than one. With the increased responsibility, he found that his ability to stay focused was getting more and more difficult.
“As a kid I struggled in school but was never evaluated,” Shaff says. “It was only after I met with a health care provider who referred me to a mental health specialist in 2013 that I got my diagnosis and was put on ADHD medication.” (If you’re on medication, download our free prescription discount card to see how much you could save on your next pharmacy run.)
Shaff isn’t alone. An estimated 14 million American adults have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Yet fewer than 20% of them have been diagnosed or treated, says the Anxiety & Depression Association of America.
“I’ve been at the same job for 16 years, and focusing has always been a constant battle beyond daily duties,” he says. “My short attention span hindered my ability to stay on task, speak with clarity and lead consistently. I couldn’t focus on more than 1 thing when I was tasked with multiple things.”
The myths about adult ADHD
When it comes to ADHD, there are plenty of myths to dispel. For starters, there’s lots of misinformation about the root of adult ADHD.
“ADHD is not a matter of willpower, a product of bad parenting or a result of excessive video game use — to name a few myths,” says Billy Roberts, a licensed independent social worker. He’s also the founder of Focused Mind ADHD Counseling in Columbus, Ohio. “ADHD is a true brain-based condition that has a largely genetic component.”
Another big reason there is so much misinformation about adult ADHD? The symptoms can vary widely.
“Unlike depression and anxiety, adult ADHD has a less obvious course,” Roberts says. “One person might be scattered at work. Another might do very well at a career they love but struggle to remember their keys and manage social situations.”
Diagnosing adult ADHD
At 28, Shaff finally decided that enough was enough. He knew something was impacting his ability to focus. He just didn’t know what it was. So he took the concern to his health care team.
With such varied symptoms, though, it can be easy to mistake a lack of focus for a lack of sleep, or forgetfulness for busyness. You may not think to bring up concerns to your doctor. And they may not think to ask.
If a health care provider doesn’t ask the right questions, an adult ADHD diagnosis is easily overlooked, says Roberts. And this happens more often than you’d think, he adds.
“It’s a complicated process because there’s no foolproof test for adult ADHD,” Roberts says. “Rather, there’s a systematic way of arriving at the most accurate diagnosis possible.”
To ensure a proper diagnosis, first find a licensed mental health provider who specializes in adult ADHD.
“You may have to interview several practitioners to find someone you feel comfortable with and who is culturally competent,” says Inger Shaye Colzie. She’s a licensed clinical social worker in Philadelphia who lives with ADHD herself.
Once you’ve found that expert, prepare to undergo a thorough clinical interview that can take a few hours.
“This includes evidence-based questionnaires and computer-based measures of attention,” Roberts says. “Your provider will also explore other possible explanations for symptoms, such as any underlying medical conditions.”
“Testing may also involve asking questions of someone who knows you well, such as a spouse or family member,” adds Roberts. “Someone who can describe your symptoms from an outsider’s perspective.”
Treatment for adult ADHD
Managing adult ADHD is specific to each person. Treatment can include a combination of medication and behavioral interventions that work for you and your symptoms. “They’re tailored to the individual and their unique experience with adult ADHD,” says Roberts.
Treatment plans aren’t just unique. They’re holistic, too. “By holistic, I mean that ADHD doesn’t ever impact just one part of someone’s life,” says Roberts. “It usually becomes entangled in self-esteem, anxiety and relationships.”
Having space to explore and address all the different ways ADHD has impacted your life can help you maximize your full potential.
“The goal of treatment is to help someone turn down the volume on the frustrating parts of ADHD and turn the rest of ADHD into a superpower,” Roberts says.
For Shaff, learning new strategies for staying organized has truly helped him live with his ADHD.
“I still have moments. I still lose attention. I still find myself doing things without putting thought into it,” he says. “But when I stay organized, I have structure — and a way to focus on the task at hand.”
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Adult ADHD overview: Anxiety & Depression Association of America