Not functioning at your peak? You could have undiagnosed ADHD
ADHD is the most common psychiatric condition in South African children, and many diagnosed patients find their symptoms continue into adulthood. Here a Mediclinic psychiatrist explains the dangers of living with this undiagnosed condition, and what you can do about it.
What is ADHD?
A chronic neurodevelopmental disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder is generally diagnosed in childhood. ADHD is characterised by developmentally inappropriate levels of inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity.
On average a diagnosis is made by the age of seven. But the presence of adult ADHD significantly increases the presence of comorbidities, according to the South African Journal of Psychiatry.
Dr Rykie Liebenberg, a psychiatrist at Mediclinic Sandton, says the condition has recently been recognised as a neurodevelopmental disorder that can last throughout a lifetime. “What we see is that ADHD is underdiagnosed, which means it is undertreated by the time patients reach adulthood,” she says. “Many patients believe they can outgrow it. They then invariably go off their medication just when they need to start carving out a successful future, and if the condition remains untreated, it can lead to underperformance in personal and professional areas.”
ADHD prevalence through the ages
About 5% of South African children are known to be on treatment for symptoms of ADHD while only about 2,5% of adults have been diagnosed with the condition, according to statistics collected by the SA Medical Journal in 2014.
Symptoms become more noticeable when children enter primary school, as they’re required to focus for longer periods of time – listening and answering questions in class – which is a challenge for those suffering from ADHD.
By the time an ADHD sufferer reaches adolescence, there are even more demands placed on them in terms of managing their own time, having a longer attention span and avoiding risky behaviour that may come with a lack of impulse control. Therefore the teenage years are a time where ADHD may be more obviously present.
ADHD is said to affect about 4,5% of adults. While it’s not uncommon for ADHD to only be diagnosed in adulthood, symptoms will have always been there.
Understanding the symptoms of adult ADHD
According to the DSM–5, the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals, there are three presentations of ADHD: predominantly inattentive, hyperactive-impulsive and combined.
- ADHD predominantly inattentive presents with factors including difficulty sustaining attention, forgetfulness and difficulties in following out instructions.
- ADHD hyperactive-impulsive presentations include running or climbing excessively in children and extreme restlessness in adults, difficulty waiting or taking turns, and fidgeting and difficulty in remaining seated.
- Combined presents with both sets of symptoms.
Severity can range from mild to moderate to severe, and symptoms can change over time as children get older. “Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is characterised by three core symptoms, namely inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity,” says Liebenberg. “It is a strongly inherited illness, and parents often recognise the symptoms in themselves if their child is diagnosed.”
Living with undiagnosed ADHD
ADHD is the most common psychiatric disorder in children, affecting 16% of the school-age population, according to a 2017 study in the SA Journal of Psychiatry.
It is also widely accepted that 60-70% of these patients’ symptoms persist into adulthood.
Mediclinic Welkom clinical psychologist Thato Taka says it can be difficult to get adult ADHD/ADD sufferers to take medication, even though they struggle to concentrate at work or complete their tasks on time. “This results in problems with colleagues or supervisors, and there is often a pattern of changing jobs frequently.”
Speak to your doctor if you suspect you may be suffering from signs of adult ADHD. A history of childhood and adult symptoms can help in an ADHD diagnosis and appropriate medication is generally prescribed to manage symptoms.