What is attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? Does Ritalin help?

Originally Published: November 2, 2001 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: March 18, 2014
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Dear Alice,

I know you're busy, but I really don't know who to talk to. Everyone is telling me that I'm stupid. I'm a sophomore in HS and I can hardly spell, don't know nouns, verbs. My teachers call me stupid! I get embarrassed, then cheat to get a good grade. I've done this all my life. My teachers & mum had a meeting & they think I have ADHD. I know it has something to do with not concentrating. It's like ADD, except I'm not always hyper. I will not take Ritalin! I don't want to take drugs. Can you explain what are the symptoms of ADHD? And what Ritalin does?

Dear Reader,

Having attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) does not mean that you are stupid! Many people with ADHD are smart — even gifted — and lots of others have special talents that go beyond their skills in school. ADHD, similar to other mental health concerns as well as learning disabilities and other conditions, can affect people's ability to do as well as they'd like to, or are expected to do, in school and in other areas of their lives. Getting diagnosed and participating in appropriate treatment for ADHD can make a huge difference.

The three main symptoms of ADHD — difficulty concentrating, hyperactivity, and impulsive behavior — play out in different ways in different people. Some people:

  • Mainly have trouble concentrating, but are not usually hyperactive or impulsive in their behavior (such as yourself) — this used to be called ADD;
  • Are hyperactive or impulsive often, with less trouble concentrating;
  • Struggle in all three areas: concentrating, hyperactivity, and being impulsive.

What does this mean though? In plain English, it means that people with ADHD often:

  • Fidget and squirm in class, or in any situation that involves staying still for an extended period of time
  • Are easily distracted and have a hard time paying attention
  • Have trouble waiting in line, sitting quietly, or completing tasks
  • Talk a lot and interrupt others who are speaking
  • Feel as though they are always "on the go"

Almost everyone does these things sometimes, but people with ADHD do them frequently — so much that their behavior creates problems in their lives at home, work, and/or school. What's interesting about ADHD is that its cause is not what you might expect. ADHD occurs because your body and mind are trying to make up for a lack of internal stimulation. The fidgeting, distracted thinking, and impatience, while disruptive and counterproductive in terms of getting things done in the "outside" world, serves to, in fact, keep things moving in your "inside" world. Getting at the root of the problem and treating it can allow people with ADHD to move beyond the distractions and to better utilize their intelligence and other talents.

It's not your fault if you have ADHD, and no one should be calling you names because of it, especially not your teachers, who are supposed to be helping you. It sounds as if there's been a step in the right direction though, with your Mum sitting down with them to try and figure out what's happening. The next step is for you and your family to talk with your pediatrician or family health care provider about your concerns. S/he can then refer you to specialists in ADHD (including psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, child development experts, and neurologists), if necessary. You need to have an evaluation conducted by a qualified health care professional, usually a psychologist with a specialty in this area, in order to determine whether or not you do indeed have ADHD. Because there is no one test that can definitively pinpoint ADHD, diagnosis depends on a series of various tests to evaluate a person's symptoms and to rule out other possible problems, such as learning disorders, hearing loss, or depression. This evaluation, unfortunately, is usually not covered by health insurance and may be expensive, but some clinics evaluate students for a reduced fee. You can also find out if your school or school district has available resources in-house that you could access.

If you do have ADHD, you and your health care provider will develop a plan just for you. This might include tutoring, behavioral therapy, and perhaps even medicine. Your provider will explain what each strategy, including the medicine, can do. It's understandable that the idea of taking a drug can be scary or unappealing. The medicines available to treat ADHD and other mental health concerns these days, though, are often highly effective and can have few unwanted side effects if taken as directed.

Ritalin is a commonly prescribed drug to help people with ADHD. It can enable people to:

  • concentrate better,
  • pay attention longer, and
  • feel less frustrated at school, work, and home.

Ritalin is a stimulant. Essentially, it helps people with ADHD by stimulating their brain from the inside so that they don't feel as attracted to distractions on the outside, as mentioned earlier. Ritalin is not the only medication available, and it does not work for everyone. Most people (about three out of four people who use it) say that it makes them feel better and more in control. For more information about Ritalin and other ADHD treatment options, check out the National Institute of Mental Health.

When discussing your options, think about how they would each affect your life and how they would make you feel — from both a medical and emotional standpoint. It might help to talk with your Mum, health care providers, mentors, or close friends about what makes you not want to take any drugs. Some common worries are:

  • That it will make you feel strange or different from other people you hang out with
  • That the drug would have bad side effects
  • That it might not work
  • That the effects would make you feel like a different person
  • That you would be dependent on the drugs to feel "normal"
  • That taking a medication on a regular basis can be annoying or tedious
  • That it would constantly remind you of your situation

Also think about the things that might change if you were treated for ADHD, including possibly taking medicine. How would your life be different — in good ways and in ways that you might view as not good?

It sounds as though you feel very frustrated and embarrassed in school. Getting a proper diagnosis and then possibly medicine or other treatments won't change who you are. They might make it easier for you to do the things that you want though — such as studying effectively, understanding more at school, and feeling better about yourself.

To learn more about ADHD, you can check out the Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) website. There are also many valuable books about ADHD, such as, Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder from Childhood through Adulthood, by Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey, and Learning Outside the Lines: Two Ivy League Students with Learning Disabilities and ADHD Give you the Tools for Academic Success and Educational Revolution, by Jonathan Mooney and David Cole.

Alice