What is ADHD, and What is WFS Doing to Help?

Pier-Paolo Ergueta, Writer

Among the existential crises of the environment and the coronavirus and its social implications, there are many reasons to be down in today’s world. Many fall prone to anxiety and depression, and some of us, in addition to anxiety or depression, suffer from Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. 

ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood. It is often diagnosed during childhood and lasts into adulthood. ADHD is genetic and has to do with particular brain functions and related behavior. These brain functions are collectively referred to as “executive functioning skills” and, according to add.org, include “attention, concentration, memory, motivation and effort, learning from mistakes, impulsivity, hyperactivity, organization, and social skills”. 

According to the CDC, a child with ADHD might “daydream a lot, forget or lose things a lot, squirm or fidget, talk too much, make careless mistakes or take unnecessary risks, have a hard time resisting temptation, have trouble taking turns, have difficulty getting along with others” among other signs and symptoms. Certain symptoms persist in people with ADHD (fidgeting and squirming is referred to as “restlessness” in adolescents) until adulthood, in which the symptoms of ADHD are subtler but can be just as dangerous. Adult ADHD is less about hyperactivity and more about restlessness, impulsive behavior, and the inability to plan or manage concerns with time, finances, and emotions. These symptoms cause stressors (a stimulus that causes stress) such as financial difficulties, employment problems, and the fraying of relationships with coworkers, friends, and loved ones. 

So what causes ADHD? There are a couple of theories. The neuro physical causes of ADHD are not fully understood, but most researchers agree in the belief that there are key differences in the brain chemistry of people who have ADHD and in the brains of people who do not. According to psychologytoday.com, “These researchers contend that people with ADHD have imbalances in the levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine,” two neurotransmitters with very similar chemical structures but very different functions.  

The neurotransmitter dopamine has to do with pleasure and is part of the reward pathway of the brain. The problem with those with ADHD is that they don’t efficiently process dopamine. This means that they must seek out more activities that activate the reward pathway. 

The neurotransmitter and stress hormone norepinephrine is released to increase alertness and fuel our sense of fight or flight. At normal levels, when we aren’t feeling endangered, norepinephrine is responsible for keeping us interested in a given task and is also linked to memory. Dopamine and norepinephrine have an impact on four parts of the brain: the frontal cortex, responsible for planning and organizing, the limbic system, responsible for regulating emotions, the basal ganglia, responsible for communication between different parts of the brain, and the reticular activating system, the gateway to our consciousness. 

A study by researchers at the University of Cambridge in the UK gave both healthy volunteers and patients with ADHD medication that increases dopamine levels. They found that the medication improved both groups’ ability to concentrate. One of the study’s co-authors said, “These findings question the previously accepted view that major abnormalities in dopamine function are the main cause of ADHD in adult patients.” Whichever theory is more convincing, one shouldn’t believe that ADHD is a weakness or a character flaw. It should be treated as one would any other disorder. But how is ADHD treated and what’s being done at WFS to help those with ADHD or other learning disorders?

Medication is one of the more common and recommended answers. Robert Volpe, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Counseling and Applied Educational Psychology at Northeastern University states: “Many children benefit from medication but psychosocial interventions should be a first line of treatment.” Psychosocial interventions refer to different therapeutic techniques that do not involve medication. An anonymous WFS student values the efficacy of their ADHD medication: “I do take medication and without that, there is definitely an element of impulse. I am required to take medication before driving a car. Without my meds, I am definitely more apt to not paying close attention or even daydreaming while I am supposed to be fully attentive on the roads.” According to a second anonymous student, “ADHD can be very frustrating to my mental health. I constantly feel behind or not a part of things because it’s harder for me in a school environment.” The student also had this to say about how WFS helps: “Wilmington Friends is JUST okay at dealing with students with ADHD. They try to be flexible with their learning accommodations, which I admire, but sometimes lesson plans can be difficult for people with learning differences.” The first anonymous student also stated that: “at WFS, I received some accommodations for ADHD. Nothing that helps in major ways, however. I have found myself daydreaming or not paying attention during my more lecture-based classes, which is awful. I had heard some ideas of an organized meeting for kids with ADHD at the beginning of the year but not a lot of movement has been happening since then.” So what exactly is happening on the WFS campus to address the needs of students with ADHD and other ‘accessibility needs’?

In an interview with Learning Resource Coordinator Stella Mask, I was able to ask that exact question and more. Ms. Mask teams up with the school guidance counselor Dr. Joppa to address two questions posed to those struggling with ADHD: why are issues arising, and what can we do? As an adult with ADHD, Ms. Mask works on the common issue of ADHD to develop actively updated Learning Profiles and educational evaluations for those who come to WFS with medical diagnoses. According to Ms. Mask, she and Dr. Joppa can’t reach all kids with ADHD, only those who have medical diagnoses. More hands-on help from Ms. Mask and Dr. Joppa is out-of-class help with troubled areas, suggested tools and strategies for organization, and much more.

ADHD is a relatively common disorder. If you’re someone who’s questioning whether or not you have it, it could be a good idea to schedule a test with your doctor! Stella Mask and Dr. Joppa offer their resources and those of WFS to help assist you through this school year.