ADHD on College Campuses

In college, students with attention deficit/hyperactive disorder face an array of challenges-long days and nights of classes, studying and activities, all of which require increasing amounts of concentration.

Dr. Mark Thomas stands ready to help, both at The University of Alabama's Student Health Services and through his research into treating AD/HD on campuses across the country. That treatment includes prescribing drugs that allow students to focus over long periods of time and training in better study habits.

"Medications are, far and away, the most effective treatment for ADHD," said Dr. Thomas, a physician in the Student Health Center/University Medical Center, part of the UA College of Community Health Sciences. "They're not the total treatment, but they're the component of treatment that makes the most difference. We do try to advocate to students with AD/HD that the medication is just one part of the overall treatment approach."

 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that, as of 2006, 4.5 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 had been diagnosed with ADHD. In 2003, Alabama led the nation with 11 percent of its children diagnosed with ADHD, according to a center report. When these children reach college, they'll need to continue treatment. In addition, some students are being diagnosed with ADHD for the first time in college.

In May 2009 at the American College Health Association meeting in San Francisco, Dr. Thomas was asked to co-chair an effort to write guidelines for treating ADHD on American college campuses.

"What grew out of that particular meeting was a consensus that we need to establish some guidelines for treatment of AD/HD across campuses," Dr. Thomas said. "There are guidelines in place for the pediatric population - children roughly between 6 to 12 - that the American Academy of Pediatrics has come up with. There are also guidelines that psychiatric associations have prescribed for grownups. What are really lacking are guidelines for adolescents and young adults, college age in particular."

"The characteristics of inattentiveness would include not only daydreaming, being easily distracted, procrastination, lack of organization, losing things, misplacing things, forgetting appointments, just an overall sense that the world is passing you by, and you're not able to keep up with it," he said. "Patients end up feeling quite overwhelmed."

Dr. Thomas surveyed 124 campus health centers from across the country about how staff members diagnose and treat ADHD. His preliminary findings suggest that about a third of these health centers do not offer prescription treatment for ADHD.

"While students on these campuses could presumably go off campus to receive this service, not having it readily available on-campus may provide a significant barrier to receiving care," he said.

Campuses also vary widely when it comes to diagnosing ADHD among students. "Only about half of them handle making a new diagnosis of ADHD," Dr. Thomas said. "Who they have handling their prescriptions and making the diagnoses varies widely. The most common providers they have are family-medicine physicians or psychiatrists. As far as making the diagnosis, there's a larger number that use mental health professionals, which also would include psychologists as well as psychiatrists."

Preliminary research also suggests that more than half of the students treated for ADHD in colleges were diagnosed on campus. Students who do not show the hyperactive component of ADHD in their childhood sometimes slip through the diagnosis net because they develop coping mechanisms in elementary or high school. Those coping mechanisms often break down in college.

"Eventually they get to the point where they're no longer able to function adequately either due to the increasing complexity of the school work or because they are now without the aid of parents or teachers looking over their shoulders," he explained. "That's when they present and become diagnosed."

Part of the guidelines Dr. Thomas is helping develop involves diagnosis. Physicians need to be careful about distinguishing between ADHD and normal problems with concentration. Also, he's looking at who should make the diagnosis and whether the student has other problems that either mimic ADHD or make it worse.

"We don't want to establish the bar for making the diagnosis so high that it presents a significant barrier to care," he said. "At the same time, we don't want to set it so low that it's easy for someone to come off the street and get a prescription they don't really need.

"As part of that diagnostic process, we do want to address the possibility of learning disorders, either co-existing with ADHD or mimicking ADHD. We also look out for other psychiatric diagnoses that mimic ADHD or coexist with ADHD. Why that's important is, with psychiatric diagnoses, we don't want to be treating the wrong thing.

"Sometimes the right medication for ADHD would be the wrong medication for other conditions and make the other conditions worse. On the other hand, if there are some unrecognized psychiatric diagnoses or learning disabilities, then we're losing the opportunity to being able to fully help the patient or the student."

Prescription medicine remains at the forefront of treating ADHD, Dr. Thomas says, including dextroamphetamines and methylphenidates. Innovations have refined and improved the way these drugs work on the brains of people with ADHD.

Beyond drugs, Thomas is working to include in the guidelines other avenues of support for students with ADHD. He is working with students from the University Computer-Based Honors program to develop podcasts produced by students with ADHD to offer peer-to-peer support for the condition. He and other University staff members have formed the ADHD Consortium, a group of faculty and staff members interested in students with ADHD. The group is working to coordinate services for these students.

"We try to get them to go to the Office of Disability Services for academic accommodations," he said. "Another leg of their treatment is academic training help, such as training in study skills and time management skills. There are a number of places we can send them to for that, for example the Center for Teaching and Learning at UA. We also are very interested in developing more programs for helping in that area, because that's an area in which students don't have a lot of awareness of what's available."

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Dr. Thomas is promoting a very limited approach to coping with ADHD. Drugs and a support group? That's it? Very 1980s. Come on!

We are all quite aware, based on research like the Multi-modal Treatment of ADHD Children (MTA) study, that behavioral, academic, and cognitive interventions offer higher rates of success when combined with medication. Medication simply masks symptoms. It teaches nothing.

When I was an acting principal, I used Play Attention (www.playattention.com) to teach attention, cognitive skills, memory, and shape behavior. We had incredible success. For younger children we also used ADHD Nanny (www.adhdnanny.com) for the same reasons.

Regardless of the program used, it's imperative that we offer more than meds and support groups. Academic tutoring (not just accommodations), behavior shaping, cognitive training, memory training, etc. have to be employed as well if we expect change and success. It's far past time to integrate what we know scientifically about neuroplasticity with education.

kirk horton,  principal,  retiredApril 23, 2010
fletcher, NC


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