British Columbia

This woman was diagnosed with ADHD in her 50s. She says it shouldn't have taken so long

With October being ADHD Awareness Month, patients and doctors in B.C. are highlighting the stigma associated with the disorder and the difficulty accessing support.

Four per cent of adults have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder

Robbie McDonald, 53, was diagnosed last year with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

Robbie McDonald wasn't diagnosed with ADHD until she was in her 50s, but she began to suspect she had the disorder late last year. 

After she had a conversation with her family doctor, who she was seeing for an unrelated condition, she says it was like a light bulb turned on.

McDonald says the diagnosis helped explain "difficulty" in her career and lifelong issues with paying attention and emotional rawness. She couldn't seem to sustain one job for long periods of time, but when she got excited about something, she was "unstoppable." 

She considers herself lucky to have received a diagnosis and treatment, saying access to medication is tough for those without a doctor willing to prescribe. 

"There was definitely a period of grief when I was first diagnosed. Of wondering what my life would have been like had I known about this when I was young," she told CBC News. 

"Had my teachers, had my family known about it, we may have been able to create some structures that may have led me down a different path."

With October being ADHD Awareness Month, patients and doctors in B.C. are highlighting the stigma associated with the disorder and the difficulty accessing support.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder occurs in four per cent of adults worldwide, according to the Centre for ADHD Awareness. It is a chronic condition and can lead to an inability to properly regulate attention and emotions.

McDonald has a podcast about discovering you have ADHD as an adult, and says more than half of her listeners are women. (Ryan Walter Wagner)

McDonald says the disorder has a gendered reputation and is often associated with hyperactive boys, but she believes women are equally affected by it.

The COVID-induced lockdowns last year caused her to re-assess her habits and seek a diagnosis after she noticed her work schedule had been serving as a "container" to keep her symptoms in check. 

"When that was taken away, suddenly I had the time to kind of think about why is it that when my partner's talking to me over coffee in the morning, I can't just sit and listen to him," she said. "I have to get up and do things, and it's physically difficult for me if I don't. And so that was like a real wake-up call for me."

McDonald has a podcast about being diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, and she says more than half of her listeners are women.

Medication expensive, difficult to access

Without extended health insurance, McDonald says she pays over $100 a month for her medication.

After trying various other prescribed drugs, she says her current medication slows her down and gives her space to consider things. 

"Sometimes I do feel like a bit of a guinea pig," she said. "There has been a lot of trial and error, you know, been trying three different medications, having a lot of conversations about how I'm feeling, how I'm sleeping." 

She says she is lucky to have received her prescription from her family doctor, but that ADHD isn't her doctor's area of expertise and it took five years to be matched with her doctor.

According to people she has talked to for her podcast, getting prescribed at a walk-in clinic is even harder.

Blind spot

Dr. Gurdeep Parhar runs the Adult ADHD Centre in Burnaby and says there is a bit of a blind spot in the medical community when it comes to adults with ADHD. 

"I think our education system, whether it was medical school or residency or nurse practitioner school and further training, just didn't train us to think about adults with ADHD," said Parhar.

Gurdeep and Anita Parhar run the Adult ADHD Centre in Burnaby, and say medical practitioners often do not have enough awareness of the disorder to properly prescribe medication or treatment. (Submitted by Gurdeep Parhar)

Parhar and his wife, Anita, train other practitioners to recognize the symptoms of ADHD and are often referred patients who are seeking a diagnosis or medication.

Parhar says an ADHD diagnosis often requires a deeper knowledge of patients' medical histories. With many people in the province unable to find family doctors, he says it could prove a "barrier" to accessing treatment, but that people should not hesitate to reach out for medical help.

McDonald says doctors at walk-in clinics should be educated about the disorder, and that all the talk among politicians about a focus on mental health should be backed up with policies to make supports for ADHD widely available.

With files from Jon Hernandez