For ADHD awareness month, Cannabis Health meets patients who use cannabis to treat the symptoms of the condition.
In the third part of our series on ADHD, we meet Anna Ling who was diagnosed with the condition as a child. She considers herself lucky to have been diagnosed so young.
ADHD is often quite a difficult diagnosis process, especially for women. Traditionally, it has wrongly been attributed to men. It was thought that women have less obvious or fewer socially disruptive symptoms than them. Studies also show that women tend to have less coping strategies for ADHD symptoms than men and present with higher levels of anxiety or depression.
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that more boys are likely to be diagnosed than girls at a ratio of 12.8 per cent to 5.6 per cent.
Anna says: “I was diagnosed when I was younger as I was very hyperactive and wouldn’t sit still. I was always very fast then I could never concentrate, so it got noticed that something wasn’t right.”
Anna went through the whole diagnosis process which usually means a referral from a GP to a psychiatrist. The waiting lists for this can be anything over a year through the NHS, but the cost to go private can be out of reach for most people.
When it comes to explaining how ADHD will affect patients, there isn’t a lot of information out there. Anna found herself on the medication, Methylphenidate, for a while before deciding to stop taking it.
She is currently not on medication but treats her symptoms with cannabis. However, she still struggles with the condition.
She explains: “I haven’t been able to keep a job for more than six weeks because I can’t focus enough and I get so anxious when I get there that I can’t do anything. I’m just completely stuck.”
“I mainly struggle to focus and with my memory as I’m constantly losing things. I came off medication about six years ago when I was 18, I had left school and I didn’t really want to take it.”
Methylphenidate is a central nervous system stimulant usually sold under the brand name, Ritalin. It affects chemicals in the brain and nerves that contribute to hyperactivity and impulse control. Methylphenidate side effects may not be the best option for patients with a history of anxiety, depression or mental illness. It can cause new or worsening psychosis, unusual thoughts or behaviour, especially where there is bipolar disorder or mental illness.
Anna suffers from other mental health conditions which mean that she is currently living in an adult care home.
“I have a lot of other mental health things going on, so the ADHD disappeared amongst everything else. People seem to forget that I have it and didn’t outgrow it. I’ve learned to deal with it,” she adds.
” I also have tics as well, I will whistle a lot which can be annoying for other people.”
ADHD and tics
Tics are repetitive, sudden movements you make without wanting to make them. For people with ADHD, they could be itching, twitching their nose or neck, shrugging shoulders, or blinking. Some people have vocal tics which may be coughing, grunting, or sniffing.
It is thought that tics may not be caused by ADHD but potentially be a co-morbid disorder. However, researchers from a study found that 70 per cent of children with ADHD had tics. There are few studies that suggest it may be stimulant medication-based.
Anna started consuming cannabis to have fun with her friends before noticing it had a different effect on her.
“Initially it was just about having fun with friends then I noticed I was feeling more normal. I was able to fit in and function better, while getting less frustrated. As time when on, I found I was able to cope better,” she said.
Anna hasn’t got a prescription which means she worries about the quality of what she buys and access becoming scarce.
“My main concern is it being laced or not knowing what I have bought,” she says.
“It’s really hard because you can’t go to the pharmacy to pick it up. I’m conscious of being caught with it. That worry is what frustrates me the most because I haven’t got it legally.”
ADHD and cannabis
There is a lack of awareness around prescriptions for medical cannabis for conditions such as ADHD. A lot of people are unaware that it is possible to access a prescription through some, but not all, clinics in the UK.
The cost can also be a factor as many ADHD people may be struggling with unemployment or working in creative industries.
Studies show that the reason for the struggle in employment may be due to poor executive functioning. Executive dysfunction is a term used to describe a range of cognitive, behavioural, and emotional difficulties. ADHD people with executive dysfunction struggle with planning, problem-solving, organisation, and time management – which are all valuable job skills.
To reach medical cannabis, patients must have exhausted regular medication. GPs seem reluctant to prescribe ADHD medication.
In our second article, Aodhán expressed his reluctance to seek any more help with medication after negative experiences with GPs. Jakob in our first feature also mentioned that he sees his GP once a year to have his stimulant based medication increased. The answer seems to be either exhausting patients looking for help or increasing pharmaceutical medication that carries an addiction risk.
So, how does this change?
Visibility is key.
Anna said she is only now starting to openly discuss her diagnosis.
“I’ve only started to be open about it in the last three years,” she admits.
“I found it really hard to make friends before that as I was always the child who didn’t get invited to birthday parties, so I hid it from people for a very long time. Then I figured as an adult, I get to make the choice and I’d rather tell people than have them think I am weird.”
Her ADHD was often viewed differently by her friends’ parents.
“A lot of parents think we are the naughty kid. When I was 13, my friend’s parents didn’t want me to come around because I was naughty. It wasn’t that, it was just the world was different for me,” she says.
“I found it very hard to control myself, not because I was naughty but because I had ADHD.”
Anna has even had to educate the staff at her facility about what ADHD looks like.
“[The staff] were absolutely clueless, they had no idea, I have had to educate them on how I function as a person, she says.
“I feel like I shouldn’t have to have done that, they should be getting that education from elsewhere, but I’m happy to do it so that they can support me.”
She is also educating them about cannabis as a medication for ADHD.
“It’s a good thing to talk about our different experiences because it’s still quite an unknown thing,” Anna adds.
“People just associate it with wanting to be high and having a good time. It’s more a case that it helps me to stay calm, reduces my anxiety and helps me not to lose my temper as much.”
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