There’s a ton of misinformation out there on what ADHD is, what it isn’t, and ways to detect and diagnose it. After a suicide attempt in 2011, I was diagnosed with Adult ADHD and I felt a huge weight had been lifted. However, in the months that followed, I began to dig deeper into my diagnosis, the causes for the behaviours and symptoms I’d been showing for years, and possible alternative explanations. After all, I’m the type of person who is deeply introspective.
This led me to an eye-opening experience to say the least. Through speaking to specialists in realms other than psychiatry (such as vision therapy, neuroscience, trauma specialists and sleep experts), it became clear that my ADHD diagnosis was incredibly faulty. With an open mind, I began to seek the truth whatever it would turn out to be.
A few of the many conditions and root causes that easily mimic ADHD and can be incorrectly diagnosed as ADHD for many reasons include:
- Inability and/or unwillingness to rule out other possibilities
- Lack of funding and, therefore, time spent with the patient
What is actually needed (in my opinion) is a collaborative multi-disciplinary team assessment that takes months, not minutes, to assess. Here are few very important possibilities to rule out before settling for an ADHD diagnosis:
I have what’s called Convergence Insufficiency, which isn’t tested for in many basic eye exams. Dr. Patrick Quaid, of EyeCarrot, helped me to discover this issue, mentioning that it’s only one of many that can easily present with symptoms of exhaustion, distraction, mood swings and other behaviours.
Childhood trauma can easily be mistaken for ADHD, and though the two are said to co-exist, only roughly three percent of kids actually have ADHD (a far cry from the near 15 percent currently diagnosed in some areas of the US, as Dr. Allen Frances, the Chair of the DSM-IV Task Force has stated publicly on Twitter). What’s needed is for trauma experts, such as psychologists and graduate students in Social Work, to be included in ADHD assessments as part of a collaborative diagnostic effort.
Sleep Quality Issues
According to National Geographic Television, 44 percent of Americans get less* than six hours of good night sleep per night, making sleep issues (not just quantity but quality) are a massive contributor to ADHD-like symptoms that can easily be misdiagnosed as anxiety, depression, mood disorders and – you guessed it – ADHD.
Any number of learning disabilities may present with symptoms similar to ADHD, since the child isn’t able to learn like other classmates, which can quickly turn into frustration, distraction and “class-clown-like” behaviour.
Undetected seizure disorders can make a child appear lost, distant and distracted. Staring off into space can be mislabelled as ADHD. Since a seizure can come and go in as little as a few seconds, it may go unnoticed by teachers, but the resulting issues with learning and behaviour in and out of the classroom can set a child up for an entirely wrong diagnosis (and treatment, potentially).
Early-Onset Bi-Polar Disorder
Very similar to ADHD symptom-wise, bi-polar in children can produce* rapid-cycling mood swings. Hyperactivity, impulsivity, separation anxiety, depression, low self-worth and other behavioural symptoms can exist with childhood bi-polar disorder, and it should be ruled out before even thinking of assessing for ADHD. Medications used for each of these conditions are very different, and can have dangerous effects if wrongly diagnosed, such as psychosis in kids who have bi-polar who are given stimulant medication.
Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)
Mal-developed brains in children with FAS cause behavioural issues, such as hyperactivity, attention problems, issues with stealing, lying and cheating, and learning disorders are also possible. However, these kids don’t appear as “disabled,” and they often score in normal or below-normal tests for intelligence, so it’s case by case as far as detection is concerned.
Lack of exercise, children who are gifted, and those with emotional problems are all candidates for an ADHD diagnosis that doesn’t take the time to look and dig deeper.
These are just a few of the nearly 100 actual root causes of symptoms that end up being diagnosed as ADHD every single day. While there are numerous articles online for what to rule out before even thinking that ADHD might be the proper diagnosis, there’s an overwhelming lack of knowledge in the general public, and among many health professionals in various fields. After my own misdiagnosis of ADHD, I decided to speak out for this very reason. As more and more children and adults are being diagnosed with the label, we all need to take our time to dig much deeper than the current standards call for. Diagnoses made in single visits to general practitioners, paediatricians or even psychiatrists simply aren’t acceptable – that should be an outrage, frankly.
A collaborative, multi-disciplinary team approach is the best way to ensure that the patient’s home life is taken into account, that their lifestyle is addressed, their vision, sleep quality, diet, screen-time and several other factors are also considered, not to mention any past trauma either in childhood or in adult relationships. A Band-Aid approach of quickly labelling someone with an ADHD diagnosis, and offering them a prescription and therapy simply isn’t enough.
A Final Note
It can be expensive and time-consuming (in many cases) to do what’s needed to rule out the many things that mimic ADHD, but keep going – keep digging deeper in different areas of life, looking for thought and behaviour patterns, possible addiction to technology and/or social media which can impact levels of anxiety and depression and don’t stop* at a diagnosis.
That’s just the beginning, as I found out after being put on nine psychiatric medications over the course of three years, only to wind up medication-free, signing my first book deal and absolutely thriving by changing my career, my work environment, and changing my thought and behaviour patterns on a daily basis.
Remember, there’s a lot more to ADHD symptoms than we’re often told in the media. Do your own research. Dig deeper and be thorough. It’s your mental health, after all.
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