Preventing the Psychosocial Effects of Adult ADHD During the Pandemic

Naveen Aman, MD , Faisal Islam, MD, MBA , Sherif Karama, MD, PhD, and Zia Choudhry, MD, PhD, MBA

April 19, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

As some countries brace for yet another possible surge in the COVID-19 pandemic – particularly among young adults who have not yet been vaccinated – clinicians should remain wary of the cardinal symptoms of adult ADHD.

Research from an Israeli study shows that individuals with unmedicated ADHD are 52% more likely to test positive for the virus.1,2

Dr Naveen Aman

The symptoms of ADHD, including impulsiveness and inability to follow directions, combined with the tendency to leave adults with ADHD on their own to sort out COVID-19–related protocols – make these individuals susceptible to exposure.

As we know, ADHD is a condition characterized by a pervasive pattern of impulsivity and/or inattention, which greatly reduces organizational capabilities by interfering at the developmental level.3 Other key symptoms include short attention span, hyperactivity, restlessness, difficulty in prioritizing tasks, and an absence of time awareness. Symptom presentation of ADHD is contingent upon the nature of the individual's overall mental health and etiologic issues that may be traced back to the brain's development.4

Diagnosing ADHD in adults is relatively difficult, because a formal diagnosis generally requires symptoms to show up between the ages of 6 and 12.5 Also, clinicians can interview parents and family members to assess whether the classical features of ADHD were present in childhood for those suspected of having the condition.

Early vs Late Presentation

Among the preschool population, it has been observed that emerging ADHD symptoms may progress with time or remain relatively constant with respect to the activities that children partake in. In some instances, impulsive behavior, especially compared with other symptoms, might be identified quickly by the attentive parent or caregiver. However, when ADHD appears in adulthood, it is possible that prior ADHD symptoms escaped detection – only to be diagnosed later in life because of varying presentations and the increased organizational demands of adulthood.

Meanwhile, diagnosis in adolescence can bring a different set of challenges to the forefront as teenagers face problems with self-management and responsibilities of daily living. These young people must cope with academic6 and social pressures – and a host of new societal expectations.

It is essential to understand how all of those societal factors have affected ADHD and its aspects, especially within the context of COVID-19. The coronavirus has introduced myriad challenges at the global level. Individuals with ADHD exhibit neurodevelopmental and corollary attention deficit issues that make them more susceptible to environmental stressors. Physical distancing practices might aggravate existing behavioral problems.

Distance Forced by Pandemic Offers Challenges

Despite the widespread adoption of telemedicine during the pandemic, some physicians think that the delivery of optimal care and the ability to adequately address patients' health-related concerns have been compromised. Certainly, in the case of addressing the needs of patients with ADHD or related learning disorders, in-person examinations and clinical visits are best.

That is also the case for ADHD patients with comorbid sleep disorders. For those patients, it might be prudent to explore lifestyle changes (for example, improvements in sleep hygiene practices) before resorting to the use of pharmacologic agents such as hypnotics and melatonin. Along similar lines, the European ADHD Guideline Group (EAGG) advises the use of pharmacotherapy after the successful completion of a physical exam; patients already adhering to a treatment plan should continue therapy without interruption. Clinicians caring for patients with adult ADHD have faced a dilemma because treatment breaks increase the likelihood of illnesses resulting from the pandemic. Also, the inability to conduct treatment in person because of the pandemic raises concerns about pharmacotherapy.

The pandemic has affected the course of pediatric care and also has presented new challenges for adolescents as they begin to tackle unique problems related to their health concerns. In prepandemic times, teachers played integral roles in the diagnostic process, because they were able to readily identify children and teenagers with mental and physical challenges. In stark contrast, connecting with students online may not allow teachers to identify skill deficits in young patients or in adults with ADHD.

Furthermore, adults with ADHD and medical comorbidities may be at increased risk of disease exposure directly resulting from an inability to address their social and/or emotional well-being adequately. The social distancing and other mitigation measures advised by public health experts ensure safety and protection but also can present numerous hurdles for children, teenagers, adults – and their respective families.

Individuals with adult ADHD and other psychiatric disorders may downplay their psychological distress7 [for example, sleep dysfunction, issues concerning activities of daily living], and view it as being the natural product of the COVID-19 environment. As a result of their misconceptions, they may avoid increasing their medication dose to control emergent symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity, instead opting to manage stress without aid from health care professionals. The absence of patient-provider interactivity and the integration of telemedicine has introduced unnecessary obstacles with respect to medication management and therapy as well as general access to expert advice. It is of utmost importance for clinicians to identify at-risk patients and reeducate the adult ADHD patient on issues concerning medication intake and psychological wellness.

Individuals with developmental disorders may experience numerous setbacks when trying to navigate their environments. The lack of correct feedback, supervision, and guidance may adversely affect adults with ADHD, contributing toward a lack of self-esteem and social awareness.

Individuals with adult ADHD are more likely than are their younger counterparts to have medical comorbidities, such as cardiovascular disease8 and type 2 diabetes,9 so it is crucial to prescribe dietary instructions to patients. Sometimes patients with adult ADHD lack support in the form of acceptance by family and peers, so it is critical for the patient to come to terms with his/her condition and seek professional help, incorporating effective strategies wherever needed to maintain day-to-day functioning.

Other Possible Comorbidities

There can be risk factors associated with isolation of adults who have depression and/or anxiety, poor eating habits, and maladaptive behaviors. Other adverse health-related issues may include substance use disorder.10 Drug use suppresses developmental growth and may induce ADHD symptom exacerbation. Consistent with Khantzian's self-medication hypothesis, among individuals with ADHD, including those who lack a formal diagnosis, there is a tendency to gravitate toward illicit substances, in particular, stimulants.11

We also know that adolescents are known to engage in normal risk-taking and social experimentation. Given that, the notion of boundary setting becomes a complicated affair during a pandemic. Adults may no longer be involved in the same types of risk-taking behaviors, but enforced self-isolation coupled with unchecked consumption of various social medial platforms continue to take a toll on personal development. Socialization plays an enormous role in maintaining psychological health, and social media is no substitute for in-person interactions. Such platforms can reduce mental growth opportunities and affect ADHD adults unfavorably.

For instance, it has been reported that women with adult ADHD are more likely to present with negative cognitive biases and symptoms of anxiety as a function of social media use.12,13 As clinicians, we should recommend introducing activities with the aim of enhancing self-acceptance, mindfulness, and the ability to engage in healthy lifestyles. A holistic framework that focuses on psychological wellness and physical fitness will ensure treatment success. Medication management may prove to be a challenge because of differences in dosing, response schedules, and agreed-upon diagnostic criteria used for young patients, compared with those needed for adults.

Treatment Strategies

Before the pandemic, researchers were observing an increase globally in the ADHD diagnosis,14 and clinicians have been exploring the efficacy of select medications, sometimes with limited success.15 Stimulant medication, combined with behavioral interventions, is supported by evidenced-based medicine and is the treatment of choice for childhood ADHD.

The stimulant remedy considered to be the most efficacious for adult ADHD is methylphenidate or dextroamphetamine.

However, be sure to proceed with caution and prepare a thorough work-up, because there can be cardiovascular risk factors associated with these medications with a pronounced increase in heart rate and blood pressure.

Stimulant medications are known to increase the risk of stroke or myocardial infarction for individuals with preexisting cardiovascular anomalies or structural anomalies. The American Heart Association no longer recommends a baseline EKG before commencing stimulant therapy with the exception of preexisting cardiac risk. Nonstimulant medications such as atomoxetine are available as alternatives.

The process of finding therapies that will reduce symptoms of ADHD takes considerable time, and individuals may fail to notice improvements, at least initially.

Before prescribing any medicine or therapies, it is important to evaluate for factors that are specific to ADHD and rule out the presence of other learning or developmental disorders, to prevent negative consequences.

Health care professionals can introduce nonspecific interventions as a means of tackling complicated cases of adult ADHD, especially those that coincide with underlying medical conditions (for example, cardiovascular disease, seizure disorders, and/or eating disorders). In such cases, stimulant medications may lead to symptom exacerbation, and the health care professional should carry out a systematic evaluation (risks vs. benefits of drug classes), despite the limitations of online appointments over the course of the pandemic.

Moreover, ADHD symptoms can take on a more severe form within the context of preexisting mood and anxiety disorders. Unfortunately, these comorbidities may have a negative prognostic outcome, too, thereby increasing other health-related risk factors. Psychological interventions can be implemented via online assessments because of recent technological advances worldwide, providing a new level of confidence and social engagement. EEG-assisted biofeedback is an example of new technological modalities that may help improve the overall performance and functionality of individuals with adult ADHD.16 Numerous services and resources are available to patients and their families that can improve mental health and well-being.

Other nonpharmacologic choices also play an instrumental role in bringing harmony and organization into a patient's life through the use of daily planners, alarms, and to-do lists. In addition, therapists can provide treatment that helps individuals get motivated and reduce their anxiety levels. Behavioral therapies support patient initiatives by increasing their productivity, activity management, and satisfaction. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and marriage counseling and family therapy are modalities that may help adults with ADHD change underlying thoughts and perceptions and develop coping skills and self-esteem.

Appropriate to the pandemic situation is another treatment, e-therapy, which includes text-based communication, video calling, and phone calls. It is a low-cost and convenient alternative for people. For some patients, traveling to a particular clinic or counseling center can be difficult, and there is a shortage of counselors worldwide, so it is beneficial to talk with a counselor on a video/phone call or through social media. It is crucial for the ADHD coach to be trained with relevant knowledge to make plans, set goals, and manage a patient's schedule of activities. For the counselor, sharing tips based on personal experience and making the appropriate suggestions allows adults with ADHD to stay motivated and focus on the task at hand. It should be noted that counselors play an important role in reducing stress levels for those diagnosed with ADHD, allowing patients to lead productive lives and achieve career goals.

Various online support communities can provide patients and their parents with educational resources, to address issues connected to ADHD in a professional manner.1

The Road to Treatment Success

Any delays in treating adults with ADHD can lead to a frustrating situation in which the entire family will be affected. As stated earlier, numerous support groups are available to adults with ADHD, and some of those groups can offer valuable tips about addressing stress management and the diverse roles that parents and family members may play in patient care.18 These groups provide a network for people to exchange ideas and recommend strategies. Online support groups may connect patients directly with key opinion leaders and health care providers.

Individuals with ADHD often experience problems with organization and concentration – especially within the context of the pandemic – and receiving guidance from counselors will provide an opportunity to learn valuable coping strategies and manage symptoms, recognizing and mitigating any mood swings associated with anxiety or depression that emerge alongside their ADHD. Psychotherapy is instrumental in patient care, and individuals with adult ADHD should be taught to acknowledge the role of medications (for example, neglect, divert, or self-medicate). A holistic approach to managing ADHD symptoms is necessary for optimal functioning and independence.

Aman is a faculty member in the biology department of City Colleges of Chicago. She is a postdoctoral researcher at the International Maternal and Child Health Foundation (IMCHF), Montreal; a fellow, medical staff development, from the American Academy of Medical Management; and a Masters Online Teacher, University of Illinois at Chicago. Aman disclosed no relevant financial relationships. Islam is a medical adviser for the IMCHF, Montreal, and is based in New York. He is a postdoctoral fellow, psychopharmacologist, and a board-certified medical affairs specialist. Islam disclosed no relevant financial relationships. Karama is a psychiatrist at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, Montreal. He is an assistant professor at the department of psychiatry, McGill University, also in Montreal. He has no disclosures. Choudhry is the chief scientific officer and head of the department of mental health and clinical research at the IMCHF. He has no disclosures.


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