For three years, she was fidgeting and shaking in class. Unable to keep her body at rest.
Halle Denardis is 21 and from Muskoka, Ont. She’s in her fourth year of health promotion at Dalhousie University.
When she started university, she had trouble staying focused.
“I’m sitting in class thinking about what happened in the class I had an hour before that,” says Denardis. “When the next class comes, I have no idea what we talked about in either class because I was zoned out.”
If she lost focus during lectures, Denardis would step outside of the classroom and walk around whatever building she was in.
“I was literally doing laps of the McCain,” she says.
For Denardis, it all felt like internal chaos.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that is characterized by hyperactivity, impulsivity and/or inattention. According to the Centre for ADHD Awareness Canada, ADHD occurs in at least four per cent of adults and five per cent of children worldwide.
Dr. Penny Corkum, a psychology professor at Dal and ADHD psychiatrist, says hyperactivity in adult ADHD is “not obvious.”
“If someone is looking at an adult, you might not see they’re hyperactive,” says Corkum, “but there’s still internal restlessness.”
At the end of her first year, Denardis went to her family doctor and explained her situation. He told her she was probably just adjusting to university.
By second year, the internal restlessness amplified. During winter break, Denardis went back to her family doctor. This time he referred her to a doctor at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Halifax.
During a two-hour teleconference appointment, Denardis and a doctor at CAMH Halifax talked about her depression, anxiety and school.
“Finally, we get on to the ADHD and by the end he tells me, ‘You definitely have anxiety, you definitely have depression, but I don’t believe in adult ADHD,’” says Denardis.
Denardis heard this and worried she was overreacting.
“It felt like it was never going to get solved,” she says.
CAMH Halifax did not respond to the Dalhousie Gazette’s request for comment.
According to Corkum, just 30 years ago, health professionals thought children grew out of their ADHD.
“I think this is changing, but historically a lot of people that are trained in adult mental health didn’t learn much about ADHD because it’s considered a child problem,” Corkum says.
There are limited resources and treatments within the public system for adult ADHD. There’s no association for adults with ADHD and no publicly funded adult ADHD clinic in Halifax.
“It’s like a silent epidemic,” Denardis says. “Nobody is talking about this and people are suffering in silence.”
High price for diagnosis
In Muskoka, Denardis decided to go to a private clinic to receive an ADHD assessment. According to Heather Patterson, a registered psychologist at the Dal’s Student Health and Wellness Centre, assessments can generally range from $950 for just an ADHD assessment to $2,800 for a full psycho-educational assessment that examines learning disabilities as well as ADHD.
Denardis’s test cost $2,500.
“The question isn’t, ‘why is it so expensive?’ The question is, ‘why doesn’t this get done in the public system?’” says Corkum.
When Denardis finally received her diagnosis, she discovered that she was in the 95th percentile for ADHD.
Her 40-page detailed analysis explained how the sports she played in high school served as an outlet for her distracted brain. Denardis says the doctor who diagnosed her was surprised she managed her ADHD as long as she did without medication and therapy.
Denardis says because of her short attention span, her ADHD has affected her memory. If she’s not paying attention in the moment, the chances decrease that the memory will solidify.
“My recall is also really bad. So not only is me making a memory bad, but me being able to regurgitate that memory is bad too,” Denardis says.
This may explain how for much of her life, Denardis has struggled with standardized testing.
After receiving her diagnosis, Denardis inquired about accommodations from Dal’s Student Accessibility Centre. Accommodations can include extra time on exams and assignments, separate rooms for exams, noise-cancelling headphones for exams and note takers, says Patterson.
According to Denardis, the Accessibility Centre had limited resources at the time because a number of students were already using them. The only accommodation they could immediately provide her with was writing examinations in a room with fewer people. Denardis didn’t try and ask for further accommodations.
“If that’s all they were going to do, it didn’t feel worth it,” says Denardis.
In an email to the Dalhousie Gazette, Quenta Adams, the director of the Accessibility Centre, said she could not comment on Denardis’ specific case, but encouraged Denardis to come back to the Centre. She also wrote that the Centre is committed to “helping students address barriers they experience in the classroom, testing situations and co-op/internships.”
Denardis brought her diagnosis to the Health and Wellness Centre. Finally, by the last month of her third year, she was prescribed medication for her ADHD and began therapy.
One of the first coping techniques she began was active listening — learning how to quiet restlessness in the mind. Denardis finds she must keep her body moving. Sometimes she’ll stand in the back of class and sway to ease her breathing. She’ll purposely park as far away as she can from class, as that exertion of energy gets her through an extra 20 minutes of being still.
These techniques help with the frustration of feeling like she can’t control her focus.
“Just because you can’t do it right now doesn’t mean you’re not going to be able to do it,” says Denardis.
More resources, greater awareness
Mental health resources are slowly becoming more accessible. The Health and Wellness Centre offers free counselling services to all Dal and University of King’s College students.
“Counsellors triage all students through a same-day counselling appointment first as an initial point of contact, and then places the client on a waitlist for a follow-up psychological service as needed,” Patterson says.
Care may range from least intensive such as workshops, peer support and guided online services, to most intensive such as appointments with a psychologist or psychiatrist and case management.
Discourse certainly seems to be growing around mental health, but stigma still exists around ADHD and other disorders.
“I think until everybody has a discussion about ADHD, like people are having discussions about mental health, then it’s not going to change the way people look at it,” Denardis says, “and it’s not going to change the way people accommodate it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated one source (Heather Patterson) was a psychiatrist when in fact, she is a registered psychologist. The Gazette has updated the article and apologizes for this error.