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“Why can’t you just do it?” – Navigating ADHD in Higher Education

by Alessandra Thom

The image is a blue infographic with colourful green rectangles in the background. In the foreground there is a photo of Alessandra stood outside smiling. Below is the writing (in white) that says ““Why can’t you just do it?” – Navigating Higher Education with ADHD by Alessandra Thom” In the top righthand corner is the LUNA project logo and and the text (in black) “A LUNA project series on Education”. End of description. 

After 22 years of forgotten homework, missed deadlines, three pairs of impulse purchase roller-skates and too many lost post-it notes to count, this summer I was diagnosed with ADHD. Last week, after a month on medication, I submitted my 2500-word dissertation proposal on time, without an extension. To anybody reading who does not have ADHD, this will sound fairly mundane, but to me it was the high point of my university career; the first assignment I’ve ever submitted without an extension after four years at university.

ADHD is an acronym for Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder. There are three forms of ADHD; primarily inattentive type (formerly ADD), primarily hyperactive type and combined type. I have combined type. ADHD is not a mental health problem, it is a developmental disorder which is present from birth, akin to Autism. ADHD is slightly misnamed, as people with ADHD don’t suffer from a lack of attention, but rather problems regulating where their attention goes. I can sit and research the benefits of moss lawns for 7 hours straight, but ask me to put one single dish in the dishwasher and I will sit paralysed, unable to force my attention away from what I was previously doing onto the task in front of me. Hyperactivity can often take the form of impulse control problems, insomnia, racing thoughts and fidgeting. Navigating daily tasks such as showering, doing laundry and paying bills become nigh on impossible when you have ADHD. Add this to the pressures of university and you can become a ticking time bomb, completely overwhelmed, as tasks pile up around you.

University is inherently harder when you have ADHD. Meeting deadlines, staying focused during lectures, making it to classes on time with the work done, even just managing to turn up to class at all are huge struggles. However, with support, understanding and, often, medication, these gargantuan tasks can become slightly easier.

I spoke to Ruth, a recent graduate with First Class Honours in Accounting & Finance, about how she found navigating university with ADHD.

“The pattern I always seemed to follow was being able to keep up with university for the first couple of weeks of term, followed by losing interest and losing track of time until suddenly it was exam season and I had two days to learn an entire topic that I was meant to be studying for 11 weeks.

The worst part was the guilt of knowing that it was a mess that I’d created all by myself, for myself.”

Overwhelming feelings of guilt are common in people with ADHD, and people with ADHD are more likely to struggle with mental health problems, substance abuse issues and sleep problems. The current NHS Scotland waiting list for an ADHD assessment is a year and a half long. A lecturer from England who wished to remain anonymous said they have been waiting two years.

With all of this, it’s easy to become dejected, but with support from your university things become more manageable. I was able to obtain some of the adjustments necessary for me to succeed at university, such as extra time in exams, before I was formally diagnosed. Universities are, more than ever, attempting to help students with mental health issues and neurodivergence and although it is not currently possible to receive an assessment for ADHD through your university, disability services and student support services are there to help you, and are usually very accommodating.

Ruth wasn’t diagnosed when her university put in place adjustments for her.

“My counsellor sorted out extensions to deadlines, including an extension on my dissertation, as well as exam accommodations. They were with me every step of the way, and checked in on me on a consistent basis - something that really helped me remember to keep up communication with them and gave me the sense that someone other than myself was genuinely invested in my university career.”

Of course, there is more that universities could be doing to support both students and staff with ADHD. My personal experience has been wobbly; lecturers seem to be well-versed in how to deal with depression and anxiety but seem to be unaware of how to support students with ADHD. Ruth echoed my thoughts.

“There are tons of super great initiatives bringing awareness to depression and anxiety and similar mental health issues at university, but I didn’t see the same for ADHD. If somebody had come along and listed out all of my symptoms and told me exactly what it was at the beginning of university, I have no doubt that things would have been different.”

The anonymous lecturer told me that they struggle with a lack of awareness too as “there isn't a clear idea of what satisfactory performance would look like for someone with ADHD, so you're held to the same standards as highly-focused and productive colleagues.”

Coming to terms with the possibility that you might have ADHD is a struggle, particularly because a lot of the symptoms are things which neurotypical people also experience. The difference is that with ADHD, these symptoms are chronic and severely impede your ability to function. The symptoms are often also very similar to a number of mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. However, with ADHD, these symptoms will have been present your entire life. Often, you won’t even recognise some of them as symptoms, but as personality traits. I’ve always been called dreamy, and it turns out I always have my head in the clouds because I can’t keep track of my thoughts long enough to articulate them.

It’s important to remember that a neurotypical person struggling to complete a task is not the same as someone with ADHD struggling to complete one. A metaphor which I have found really helpful is an idea of an invisible forcefield which you have to push through in order to move your focus onto a task. Exhaustion is common as you are having to work ten times harder than neurotypical people in order to complete daily tasks and keep your head above water. Being mindful of this forcefield when you are engaging with friends who have ADHD is important. Getting frustrated with your ADHD friend for being stressed about their unfinished university coursework when they’re in the middle of writing a 3000 word essay about The Legend of Zelda is more likely to cause them to burst into tears than it is push them to do something productive.

Ruth told me that “I think that people without ADHD can be supportive by seeing ADHD not as a willpower issue, but as a legitimate disorder. Something I seemed to run into when discussing ADHD with people were comments that could basically be summed up as ‘try harder’. Another theme was being told that they, too, struggled with paying attention and were late sometimes, so therefore they knew exactly how I felt! While totally well-intentioned, these comments actually succeeded in furthering the idea that maybe this was just a matter of willpower and that maybe if I tried harder, things wouldn’t be going wrong all the time. So even though it might sound silly, the most helpful thing my friends have done is to listen without dismissing. “

As awareness spreads, more and more people are being diagnosed. This is a great thing, as ADHD is severely underdiagnosed in women and in BAME people. If you think you have ADHD I cannot recommend getting assessed enough, not just for your university career, but for your own mental health and wellbeing, and your future.

As Ruth says “The key is to get help as soon as you think you need it - it’s so tempting to internalize everything you’re struggling with or to think that you’re just being lazy or not trying hard enough, but the best thing you can do for yourself and your success in the future is learn how to work with having ADHD and what tools you can use to keep things running smoothly.”

Having ADHD is not a bad thing, but the society we live in was not built to accommodate the way ADHD brains work. We are compassionate, creative and enthusiastic people, we just need adjustments in our lives in order for us to achieve to the best of our abilities. Ruth graduated last year with First Class Honours, and the anonymous lecturer I spoke to has a PHD in their subject. People with ADHD are not lazy, and we can succeed academically. We just need to be given the correct tools in order to do so.

(Originally published 1/10/20)

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