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ADHD in adults: Why it’s more common than you think

Few of us associate ADHD with adulthood, but many Australians live with the disorder all their lives. In this article, psychiatrist Dr Hugh Morgan explains how to identify and manage adult ADHD symptoms.

There’s a misconception that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is associated entirely with children and teens – distracted kids, perhaps, who disrupt the class dynamic and have trouble concentrating. But there’s more to the condition than many people realise.

What is ADHD?

ADHD is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder affecting one in 20 Australians, which has an impact on their ability to have age-appropriate self-control, according to ADHD Australia. It tends to present as persistent patterns of distracted, impulsive and sometimes hyperactive behaviour, and can also involve emotional regulation challenges. People with ADHD have little control over these behaviours, and the condition can cause significant issues throughout their lives.

Research shows ADHD is highly inheritable, with up to 75% of cases believed to have a hereditary basis. For psychiatrist Dr Hugh Morgan, co-director of Mindcare Centre in Sydney, the gene link is clear. “You’re born with ADHD – it’s a genetic thing and it’s on a spectrum,” he says.

What are the symptoms of ADHD in adults?

People can display mild symptoms right through to very severe. While symptoms can reduce in adults, estimates from some experts suggest between 60–75% of patients continue to experience symptoms of ADHD into adulthood, but it often goes undiagnosed and can be misunderstood.

“The symptoms are the same, but the condition manifests in other ways,” explains Dr Morgan. “In adults, it tends to present as procrastination, or being bad at time management – always being late; problems with becoming bored easily; losing wallets and keys; not being good at managing money.”

How do you manage ADHD in adults?

In many ways, hyperactivity in adults can sound like negative behaviour traits rather than a mental disorder, and that’s one reason it can go undiagnosed – adult ADHD symptoms are often misunderstood and there can be a stigma attached to the behaviours and therefore a hesitation to seek help.

Dr Morgan points out that all mental illnesses are on a scale to some extent. If symptoms are persistent and interrupt your life, then they’re considered a problem that requires treatment.

“Often with mild symptoms, it’s enough to manage diet and sleep, and to introduce coping mechanisms,” says Dr Morgan. “But with more [difficult symptoms] you need medication to allow patients to take in psychological interventions. Once the medication is taking effect, you can work on CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy] with a clinical psychologist or even work with an ADHD coach about how to better manage your life.”

In CBT sessions, a psychologist or other qualified health professional helps the person learn a range of skills to help reduce the impact of ADHD, such as time management, helpful thinking, concentration and problem-solving strategies, according to the Australian Psychological Society.

As for treatment with medication, there are a few different options. In doses recommended by a doctor, it allows an ADHD patient to focus and concentrate. Your doctor can discuss medications, including pros and cons, if you’re a suitable candidate.

Adult ADHD and mental health

Adult ADHD can lead to other psychological conditions, including chronic stress, anxiety, low self-esteem and isolation. Careers and relationships can be a challenge, and adults with ADHD can be more at risk of drug and alcohol abuse, smoking or compulsive eating.

“There’s also often a loss or grief about what life could have been, if they’d been diagnosed earlier and sought treatment,” says Dr Morgan. “This can lead to anxiety and depression for which they also need treatment.”

But life can improve once ADHD in adults is diagnosed and under control. For many who are diagnosed in adulthood it can be a relief to finally have an explanation for symptoms they’ve experienced since childhood.

As Dr Morgan points out, there are always benefits in looking on the bright side. “Some of the patients I see are creative and spontaneous and have used that to their advantage in their careers.”

Find out more about ADHD in adults.

If you or your family needs help to deal with ADHD or any other mental health issue, HCF can connect you with the support you need through our holistic mental health and wellbeing support program.

Learn more

If you’re feeling depressed or anxious and need to talk to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.


Words by Rob Pegley
First published March 2020

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