For many, COVID reveals existing ADD/ADHD

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Metro | Published February 9, 2021

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BIRMINGHAM — How are you doing, handling all of this time at home?

If working or learning virtually has you a little down, unmotivated, maybe a bit forgetful and anxious, you’re far from alone. The pandemic has caused a lot of people to feel that way.

But for others, the COVID-19 pandemic and related shutdowns didn’t cause those mental health issues; it just revealed them.

Dr. Jessica Garrett, of the Birmingham Maple Clinic, said she has seen a huge jump this past year in patients who want to be tested for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. That includes younger students and working adults.

Garrett said the clinic saw a 25% increase in consultation requests for ADHD testing from January of 2020 compared to January of 2021.

“Working from home, a lot of those natural parameters that keep us on track or on schedule are taken away. It’s left a lot of us to our own devices, and a lot of people are struggling,” said Garrett.

And it turns out, most of those folks looking for a diagnosis end up getting one, whether it’s mild ADD — attention deficit disorder without the hyperactivity that can cause a lot of noticeable external symptoms like interrupting conversations or fidgeting — or severe ADHD, or something in between.

“It really comes down to ‘is this outside of the realm of what we consider normal?’” Garrett explained. “There’s an increase in distractions for all of us. And virtual learning is not the ideal for most kids. So once they come in for an evaluation, we look at whether someone is struggling and could benefit from treatment or they’re just having anxiety or difficulty adjusting to everything.”

Bob Cattoi, the CEO of Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or CHADD, said he’s definitely noticed an increase in families seeking more information about ADD and ADHD since the pandemic began.

“Our (website) page views are up, and our helpline traffic went up 62% in 2020,” Cattoi said. “Our site went from 1.5 million users to 2.6 million.”

The boost in ADHD interest isn’t really surprising to Cattoi, who said this pandemic has really been a perfect storm of conditions that would exacerbate symptoms for people who have always had the disorder but haven’t been diagnosed.

That’s particularly true of younger patients, he said.

“I think what you’re seeing is you have parents at home with their kids, and parents are trying to do home education and suddenly they’re seeing what the teacher was talking about when they said there’s a lack of attention or short-term memory loss or the hyperactivity element of ADHD.”

Not to mention, without opportunities for socialization or extracurricular activities, families have a lot more time on their hands to book an evaluation they’ve been perhaps putting off for years. That’s true for students, but perhaps surprisingly also for women between the ages of 30 and 50.

“ADHD was always thought of as an adolescent boy problem, and women often aren’t diagnosed because it presents a little differently,” he said. “It could look like low self-esteem, chronic stress, problems with attention to detail.”

But how many of these people are truly living with untreated ADHD, and how many are experiencing anxiety and depression due to the circumstances? Only time will tell, Cattoi said.

“ADHD is highly treatable. As opposed to a lot of other conditions, we have a 30-plus-year history with what works, and it’s typically a combined therapy for parents and their children,” he said.

Garrett added that cognitive behavioral therapy and, as needed, medication can truly be life-changing for people who until now didn’t even realize they had a problem.

“That is my favorite part of my job. When I get a call or an email from someone updating me after they’ve had testing and we indeed found they have ADHD and provided some recommendations — when they say, ‘Everything has changed’ because we really set them up for success,” she said.

Did you know…
Recent research has shown that individuals with ADHD could be at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. The Journal of Attention Disorders found that those with untreated ADHD are about 52% more likely to have tested positive for COVID-19. Scientists believe that related symptoms like forgetfulness and impulsivity could lead those people to forgo or forget virus mitigation measures like hand washing and face masks.