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The dangers of undiagnosed ADHD
ADHD is not just about not being able to focus or bouncing off the walls
I started writing this post on a Ryanair flight from Budapest back to London. It was my 29th birthday last week and my friend was kind enough to get us both tickets.
Let’s get started.
Is it just me or have you also realized that there’s been a rise of people online saying “you all can’t have ADHD”, “people are just claiming they have ADHD” or “that’s not ADHD, everybody does that”?
The increased media attention and public awareness of ADHD, especially around those of us diagnosed in adulthood has been great. But of course, it has brought about ADHD deniers, underminers, and ableism.
The memes, quirky ADHD Tik Tok videos, or generalized tweets for virality can give the impression that having ADHD ‘isn’t that serious or detrimental’. So I thought it was worth writing about how undiagnosed ADHD can negatively impact individuals’ lives.
But before we get started, I want to make it clear that successful people can have ADHD and some people with ADHD probably haven’t been impacted as severely by it.
Trigger Warning: This post will make references to substance use disorder, addiction, prisons, eating disorders and self-harm.
Too cool for school
Were you the gifted kid or the “you have so much potential kid”? I was the latter.
I had so much energy in class, I’d blurt out answers when the teacher asked the class, and I’d get restless quickly so I’d move to other tables to talk to my classmates. I ended up being referred to a school counselor who taught me techniques on how to not interrupt and get distracted easily.
Some teachers embraced my enthusiasm and were able to manage me well. Other teachers were not so great and I’d get the ‘do you think you’re too cool for school’ talk.
Other kids with undiagnosed ADHD weren’t so lucky.
A study by Myles Moody thoroughly examines ADHD under-diagnosis and the over-representation of Black children in the American criminal justice system:
“Existing research supports the notion that Black children are under-diagnosed for ADHD compared to White children (Healy 2013) and that Black children are punished with suspensions, and other punishments that lead them to the criminal judicial system, more often than White children are in school. (Crenshaw et al. 2015; Smith and Harper 2015).”
A 2022 article in The Guardian UK reported that:
“One in four prisoners in Britain are believed to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to a new report. Patient groups and doctors are now calling for offenders to be screened for ADHD when they arrive in prison.”
This research made me wonder how many of those people’s lives could have been different if they were diagnosed with ADHD and received treatment or accommodations.
I’m not making excuses for anyone's actions. But it’s important to acknowledge how systems can fail people with ADHD.
I never understood why I’d have to fight procrastination, distractions, and restlessness when trying to study or write essays.
I wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD at the time so I didn’t have many options:
I started with a few cups of coffee, then cheap energy drinks, and then pro plus pills. There were many time’s that I’d consume them within the same day or sitting.
I was addicted. Not to the feeling taking those things gave me, but the output I was able to achieve.
I was consuming and taking large amounts because they were not effective all of the time. Even when my heart felt like it was going to explode and I ran on about 5hrs of sleep I kept going.
Sugar in my coffee and those energy drinks have definitely contributed to my dentist bill (due to a mouth full of cavities) of over £4k in the past couple of years, yikes!
I stuck to coffee when I entered the working world and then eventually started taking ADHD meds after my diagnosis in January 2020, lifesaver!
Substance use Disorder
Did you know that ADHD is a risk factor for the development of substance use disorders? Such as the inability to control the use of alcohol, illegal/legal drugs, etc.
“Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a risk factor for the development and persistence of substance use disorders (SUD). SUD and ADHD may share similar structural and functional deficits, particularly in relation to dopamine transmission” - Ortal Slobodin and Cleo L. Crunelle
This could be due to:
ADHD-related symptoms, such as impulsivity, lead to trying substances.
Self-medicating with alcohol or drugs to cope with issues stemming from ADHD symptoms/traits.
SUD could lead to:
Poor financial decisions
Failed jobs, relationships, friendships
• Depression, harmful situations, and bad decisions
It’s quite sad that all of this could stem from undiagnosed/untreated ADHD
Nothing quirky about this!
Some people with ADHD experience difficulty with emotional regulation. Such as, struggling to control anger, feeling overwhelmingly upset, or being fearful. This is something that can be improved, but it’s hard to work on something when you might not know it’s an “issue”. Also worth looking up Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD).
For many people, anxiety and depression can develop due to ADHD symptoms/traits. For a long list of reasons (including undiagnosed/untreated ADHD), this could lead to self-harm, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, etc.
Before I was diagnosed, there were so many times that I would be frustrated with myself because of something I did or couldn’t do. But wasn’t able to put my finger on what it was.
What was wrong with me? I was helpless and clueless.
The worst part was comparing myself to Neurotypicals and wondering why things were so difficult for me. Ever felt like that?
Knowing that I have ADHD (thanks to a late diagnosis) enabled me to research tools and access treatment that helps me out in multiple areas of my life.
Many people aren’t able to get an ADHD diagnosis due to access, cost, etc. But self-diagnosing means that they too are able to develop coping strategies and do further research on how they can work with their ADHD brains.
I hope this wasn’t a mood killer but I think it’s important people are made aware.
That’s all from me!
Rach with ADHD