Fact or fiction: Medication edition
Turn on the news or hop onto social media, and you’re bound to hear about the Adderall shortage. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently shared that the shortage is expected to continue into 2023. The shortage is leaving millions of people without a medication that helps them manage symptoms of their ADHD.
Conversations around this topic have surged over the past couple of months. People have raised questions, expressed concern, and resurfaced stigmas related to ADHD and medication. That’s because understanding how medication works, what the shortage means for people with ADHD, and how to navigate misconceptions surrounding medication can be challenging and nuanced.
But as employers and co-workers, educators, friends, or family members of someone with ADHD, it’s critical to separate fact from fiction. So let’s break it down together.
ADHD: The science of it all
There are many myths around ADHD — from it not being “real,” to it being something people can grow out of. So it’s critical to acknowledge what ADHD is before addressing the misconceptions around medication for it.
ADHD is caused by wiring differences in the brain. For humans to do anything — kick a soccer ball or type an email — our brain cells (neurons) need to pass information along to each other. This process is called neurotransmission. People with ADHD have differences in their levels of neurotransmitters. This impacts neurotransmission and prevents neurons from giving or receiving the right message.
As a result, people with ADHD can experience difficulties with attention, motivation, restlessness, impulsivity, managing emotions, and more.
Medication: One tool in the toolbox
For most people, stimulant medications help neurons in the brain pass along messages more efficiently, reducing ADHD symptoms. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that 70 to 80 percent of people who take stimulant medications for their ADHD have fewer symptoms. But medications don’t work for everyone. And some people prefer not to take them at all.
Medication isn’t the only treatment for ADHD, but it’s a key tool in a large toolbox of treatment and strategies. Many experts believe that the ideal way to treat ADHD is with a combination of medication and therapy-based behavioral strategies.
“The evidence and research show that the combination of medication and therapy-based interventions is the most effective support for people with ADHD,” said Dr. Andrew Kahn, licensed psychologist and Understood.org expert. “While medication can be a positive tool for many people, having other strategies at your disposal is critical. It helps prepare you to navigate a variety of situations.”
Impacts of the Adderall shortage
Millions of people rely on Adderall as an effective tool for managing their symptoms. Not having access to it — some for several months — is overwhelming, challenging, and exhausting.
Losing access to a treatment that has already been working is disruptive for anyone. Symptoms may resurface or strengthen. And that takes a toll on people’s mental and emotional well-being. This can show up in a variety of ways.
At work, people may face more challenges with deadlines or productivity levels. They may feel pressure about poor performance. Or they may be anxious about having to disclose their disability to their manager.
In relationships, people may be more prone to zone out during important conversations. They may become forgetful and more dependent on their partner.
At school, children may have a hard time with focus. Some might be fidgety or talk when they need to be listening. This can lead to class disruption. Kids may have outbursts because ADHD makes it difficult for them to manage their emotions.
People are also left with the uncertainty about when they might regain access to a support that helps them function in their day-to-day lives. In a recent CNN article, one young adult who regularly takes Adderall described losing access to it as “just knowing that I’m not going to be even 50 percent throughout the day.”
Sophie Bancroft, Understood.org’s social media associate, added: “Taking my medication allows me to focus on a single task. Without it, I focus on everything and everyone in the room except the task.”
Myths and facts of ADHD medication
Understanding the science of ADHD, ADHD medication, and the reality that countless Americans are facing without it is a critical step in being able to support friends, family, and colleagues who may be struggling. But it doesn’t stop there. This is also a moment for allies of people with ADHD to help destigmatize medication and treatment by being able to combat myths with facts.
Common myth and facts
Myth: Adderall is the main medication used to help people with ADHD.
Fact: There are multiple medications that can help people with ADHD.
There are two different types of ADHD medication. The first is stimulants — like Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta, and Focalin. These target receptors of the brain chemical dopamine. Stimulants are often the first line of medication treatment, as they’re fast-acting and very effective at improving attention and reducing hyperactivity and impulsivity.
There are also non-stimulant medications for ADHD, like Strattera. They are less commonly prescribed but may be a valuable alternative.
As a note, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends behavioral approaches before medication is tried for children ages 6 and under. Medication options for children, adolescents, and adults alike should always be discussed with a doctor.
Myth: Everyone with ADHD takes medication.
Fact: Not everyone with ADHD chooses to take medication. And medication doesn’t work for some people. It’s just one tool to help some people manage the symptoms of ADHD.
Current research indicates that medication can be effective for the majority of people with ADHD, especially when it’s used in combination with other tools. But it doesn’t work for everyone, and many people with ADHD don’t take it. Medication is simply one tool in the toolbox for people with ADHD.
Whether or not someone takes medication, there are other strategies and tools that people with ADHD can use to manage their symptoms. Behavioral therapies, or the practice of replacing ineffective strategies with more functional alternatives, can help people with ADHD with how they respond to challenging situations.
Tools like timers, labels, and calendars can help with organization and time management. Brown/pink noise, noise-canceling headphones, and body doubling can help some people with focus.
Interpersonal strategies can be particularly helpful at work. Asking managers to email a list of priorities rather than sharing them verbally, for example, can help with setting clear expectations.
Myth: Adderall or other medications give people with ADHD an unfair advantage in school and work. Medication is a “crutch” or a sign of weakness.
Fact: Medication does not give people with ADHD an advantage or allow them to do things that neurotypical people can’t do.
People with ADHD have brains that are wired differently. Medication may help people better process information so that they can learn and work more effectively. Medication eases the symptoms of ADHD — like challenges with managing time, staying organized, and focusing — so people can navigate their everyday lives.
For more information about ADHD and medication:
Understood.org is not affiliated with any pharmaceutical company.