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Western University student curates wellness program for mental health of youths with ADHD

Since being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder a decade ago, Alexandra Elmslie of Guelph, Ont., always felt that her unique brain and its needs were misunderstood by her teachers and peers, who despite their best efforts, struggled to tend to them.

Wellness4All offers supports to students with intellectual developmental disabilities

First-year student at Western University, Alexandra Elmslie, has developed a 'Wellness4all' program to support the unique needs of students with ADHD. (Submitted by Alexandra Elmslie)

Since being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) a decade ago, Alexandra Elmslie, 18, of Guelph, Ont., always felt that her unique brain was misunderstood by her teachers and peers, who, despite their best efforts, struggled to tend to her needs. 

This is because her ADHD presents as predominantly inattentive. Elmslie found it was less commonly known in her circle compared to the hyperactive-impulsive presentation. 

Now, the first-year student at Western University in London, Ont., has started 'Wellness4All'. A virtual educational program that provides tailored mental health supports and resources for neurodivergent students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).

The program has reached over 200 high school students in its first year. 

Elmslie said her diagnosis proved to be a difficult journey because she didn't fit the stereotype of someone with ADHD who is considered overly active. It also impacted her mental health as she felt discouraged in school because she wasn't able to get the proper support, she said. 

"I've kept being neurodivergent pretty close to my heart just because of the stigma and shame around it," Elmslie said. 

"Whenever I tell people, the most common response I get is 'Wait but I thought you were smart,' as if being someone who has a disability is not the same as being smart for a lot of people." 

Lack of accessible resources

Elmslie's symptoms include a loss of focus and a struggle with organization. She believes people with ADHD are often categorized in a certain way due to a lack of awareness and understanding.

Elmslie recalled that every ADHD-specific resource that was recommended to her mainly focused on hyperactive-impulsive ADHD instead.

"I realized that a lot of mental health supports weren't accessible or applicable to those with IDD, and that just saddened me because it's an entire population that's being left out of the conversation," she said.

She wants to advocate for other students with IDD whose mental health needs tend to get overlooked by educating their parents and teachers on how to best support them. 

"Although my ADHD does deter me from some things, it definitely did not prevent me from achieving what I want when I put my mind to it," she said.

Western University student Alexandra Elmslie has ADHD and she tells London Morning why she developed a wellness program to help other students learn more about their brains.

Success despite challenges

Elmslie said her biggest lesson throughout this process has been "learning how to learn."

"Because of my brain, I haven't always been able to go with the flow and do the same things as my peers, so it's been a lot of trial and error on what works for me," she said. "It's constantly self-evaluating and trying new things."

Elmslie's dedication to academic achievement recently won her a Meridian Sean Jackson Scholarship Award of $10,000. 

The scholarship recognizes and rewards Ontario's young leaders for their community initiative, innovation and impact, said Sari Arhontoudis, the company's vice president of marketing.

"Alexandra has focused on sharing her authentic lived experience to help others successfully navigate their own challenges by initiating a community initiative," Arhontoudis said. 

Elmslie's program also won her a $10,000 scholarship which she plans to use to achieve her dream of becoming a psychiatrist. (Submitted by Alexandra Elmslie)

"We are very proud to recognize Alexandra as our 2022 winner for her resolve to help her peers and contribute to the community at large."

Elmslie's advice to other neurodivergent students is to "study your brain, but be kind to yourself in the process." 

"It can be hard for someone struggling with a disability, and it's really hard to verbalize what's happening, especially when you don't have the capacity to." 

Elmslie will follow her own advice as she navigates her post-secondary journey by finding new tricks that work for her, which she can someday share with others once she becomes a psychiatrist. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Isha Bhargava is a multiplatform reporter for CBC News. She's worked for Ontario newsrooms in Toronto and London. She loves telling current affairs and human interest stories. You can reach her at isha.bhargava@cbc.ca or on Twitter @isha__bhargava

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