Diagnosing Attention-Deficit Disorder from the Internet

A young woman told me she referred herself for counseling because she thought she had adult onset Attention-Deficit Disorder. She couldn’t keep her attention focused, kept forgetting things, and got distracted easily. It turned out she didn’t have ADD at all, but suffered from overwork and stress related to sustaining her full-time job and single motherhood. She looked up her symptoms on the Internet and concluded she had ADD. I don’t think her attempt at self-diagnosis was bad. Ultimately, it led her to seek help at a place where she could get a proper diagnosis. Others may go directly after medication to ease their symptoms.

The brain’s prefrontal cortex carries out executive functions such as planning, attention, concentration and decision-making. Virtually everything we do (intentionally) comes through the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This is why many human problems manifest themselves with accompanying attention problems. Depression, anxiety, work stress, sleep deprivation, excessive caffeine use, marital stress, physical illness, learning problems, marijuana and other drug use, heavy alcohol use, over responsibility, bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder are just a few of these problems that create difficulty in attention and concentration. If we have such problems, we will not function in our normal way. We will forget things, have difficulty making decisions, get distracted and have difficulty concentrating, but we won’t necessarily have ADD.

A prescription of Adderall, Concerta or Strattera may improve attention and concentration, but will not solve the underlying problem. It is possible that some people with ADD are diagnosed later in life because they learned to compensate for their weaknesses. They became compulsive list makers or used their charm to get excused for missed deadlines and appointments. However, 95% of us don’t have ADD.

If you have seen your physician for a check up and attention problems have begun manifesting themselves, consult with an experienced mental health professional. They will examine your thinking, sleep patterns, caffeine use, work history, marriage or relationships, sources of stress, family mental health history, school history, and screen for mental disorders. Even if you have ADD, 65% of the time there will be a co-existing (comorbid) condition that also needs addressed. The tragedy here is some professional providers fail to identify the additional problems that sometimes go for years without discovery.

One more note (this is my biased opinion), most people prescribed medications for depression, anxiety or other mental disorders by a physician should be referred to a mental health professional to help them manage the condition or address the underlying causes of the condition. Even ADD should not be addressed solely through medication. Medication has never taught anybody anything. Psychotropic medications can partially relieve symptoms (to a greater or lesser degree in different people), but people have a far greater capability of managing themselves beyond taking simply taking medication everyday.

Fortunately, today, we can offer working memory training for people with ADD (Cogmed). They can “do” something that has a good chance of improving their cognitive function in addition to medication, behavior modification, and accommodations.

David L. Barnhart, EdD

Licensed Counselor

Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor

National Certified Counselor