Does ADHD exist?

“Based on all of the information you have provided, the collateral information, and the report cards, I think the most likely explanation is Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, also known as ADHD.”

“The doctors tried to diagnose me with that when I was a kid, and now you want to medicate my kid? I don’t believe in ADHD, we’re getting out of here.”

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Photo by RUN 4 FFWPU on Pexels.com

It’s not an uncommon scenario. A parent brings their struggling child into my office for an assessment. The child promptly runs into my office, and immediately begins playing with the toys laid in a bin by my desk. Mom continually redirects the kid, who for some reason, just can’t seem to sit still. “He’s run by a motor,” she says, “he’s always been this way, full of life! But he’s really struggling at school.”

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is a real disorder, that in broad strokes, can present in two different ways. There is the hyperactive sub-type, which is probably what most of you picture when you think of ADHD. Less recognized is the inattentive subtype of the illness, previously known as ADD. These are people and kids who can zone-out and have trouble maintaining attention, but are not running around the classroom (as a clinical pearl, women tend to present with the inattentive sub-type, and males with the hyperactive).

So what is ADHD, other than a hyper kid? To understand that, we must first understand what are psychiatric diagnoses. You can read more about that here. The punchline is that a feature of personality, behaviour, or mood, only becomes an illness when it begins to interfere with functioning. If you’re an anxious person, that can be a source of strength. It makes us on time for work, helps us meet deadlines, and not forget our wedding anniversary. If your anxiety gets to the degree it begins to cause avoidance and problems functioning (for example, anxiety causing you to miss work), then you would meet criteria for an anxiety disorder.

There is a similar phenomenon with ADHD (which *disclaimer* remains poorly understood!)

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Our attention span lives in our frontal lobe, the front part of the brain. If we took one hundred people and tested their attention span, it’s likely we would find a range of different attention spans among the population sample. If we plotted this on a graph, it would likely look something like the picture to the left. Attention span would be on the x-axis (bottom), and the number of people with that attention span on the y-axis (side). Note that the numbers contained on the graph in this post are meaningless and are just for understanding!

A quick interpretation of the graph allows us to arrive at some conclusions. Most people have an average attention span, represented by the peak in the graph. Some people have a superior attention span, the plateau on the right side of the graph. The plateau on the left would be those with poor attention spans. So in summary, there exists a spectrum of attention spans, with most people falling near the middle, with some people (outliers) on the edges.

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Credit: Medicalnewstoday

The prevalence of ADHD is between 5-10%, meaning 5-10% of the population have ADHD. These individuals would be represented on the graph by the lower attention span outliers, about from the “-2” on the x-axis above to the left limit of the graph. But does having a low attention span mean you have ADHD?

No!

Remember, context is always important in psychiatry! If something does not interfere with your functioning, it’s not a disease, it’s just who you are. Our society has, over time, placed increasing emphasis on an education model focused primarily on sitting in a seat. A math test is in many ways as much a test of your ability to sit still for an hour straight as it is about your skills in math. The modern day office is in many ways a person with ADHD’s nightmare. If you take the same child and place them in a playground, a gym, or a more active form of education, you may find they excel. Many of the people diagnosed with ADHD today may find they did not qualify for the diagnosis one hundred years ago, when time spent at a desk was minimal. All of that to say, ADHD exists, and is a result of the direct interaction between our individual attention spans and societal expectations!

So do we medicate these kids, if a change in environment can sometimes optimize functioning? That’s a complicated question. The answer is (usually) yes. The impairments in functioning caused by ADHD can be life changing. Academic and vocational success may depend on it. Happiness in relationships, impulsive anger, and substance use, are all impacted by treated/untreated ADHD. The reality is our ability to change the environment in our regulated world is extraordinarily limited. The fact is we are all expected to graduate high school, and that’s that. While some parents find success for their children in alternative school systems with different education models, in my experience this has a limited benefit.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Treatment for ADHD is 85% effective, among the highest response rates for any medication for any illness. Ever.

I recently met a middle aged man presenting with problems losing things. He was worried he had dementia. This man worked as a camera man for an international news agency, and his work brought him all over the globe. He has worked in countless battlegrounds, war torn countries, and environments on earth that I cannot begin to imagine. And he excelled at his job. On further history, outside of occasionally losing his keys, the remote, or his cell phone, he wasn’t really having any issues. He had many of the features of ADHD and may very well have met criteria for the illness, particularly when he was school-aged, based on his old report cards which he brought in at my request. This man, however, had found a partner and an occupation which were not only tolerant of this mans attention span and resultant behaviours, but embraced it.

“So doc, do you think I have ADHD?”

“Nope!”

Editor’s note: Often times I meet people who later in life, after high school and college, find a niche job that works for them and they can reduce or even eliminate the need for medications. If your child is struggling in school due to ADHD, I highly recommend treatment, because it can have life changing consequences!

Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in Toronto, Canada.

Pride for the fallen

I waited hungry-eyed in the line at McDonald’s. The ambient beeping of God-knows-what machine and the occasional interruption of a screaming child. Above the fray, I hear a call.

“Order 421?”

“That’s me!”

Finally. My chicken nuggets had arrived. I settled down to eat them and thought, today is a good day.

It’s pride week in Toronto and many of the patrons of the establishment were garbed in a variety of rainbow outfits. Beside me sat a small boy and his parents.

“Mom, why does that guys shirt say remember?” he asked, as he pointed towards a large-bearded gentleman with a tye-die rainbow shirt with #remember printed on the chest.

“What do you think?” asked mom.

“They’re remembering people I think!”

“Good job, what people?”

“Maybe the war? Like world war 2?”

“Close! They’re celebrating gay pride and they’re remembering the people who came before them. It’s not that long ago you could be beaten to death for being gay.”

The boy looked appropriately surprised as his mother continued; “you know, there’s parts of America where you can’t get married if you’re gay.”

The boy responded,”what?! That doesn’t make any sense!”

I had to stop myself from getting up and hugging this mother, for thanking her on raising such a gentle, open-minded child. He was surprised to hear being gay was something people considered bad. It didn’t make sense to him that there are jurisdictions where gay marriage remains illegal. It was a breath of fresh air among increasingly suffocating calls for “straight pride.” They aren’t discriminated against any more and if we are about equal rights, we should have a parade too! being among the most common complaints solicited on the average Facebook newsfeed.

I got up and left the table, thinking about the family as I left. The moment I had just witnessed, I thought to myself, was the perfect example of why gay pride is important.

Homosexuality has been various degrees of criminal in the modern memory of the Western world. LGBTQ2+ members of our society have been jailed, beaten, tortured, and forced into hiding, because of our collective intolerance of their own sexuality.

If you ever find yourself wishing for a straight pride parade, think for a minute if you want what came before it. And while you waste your time contemplating such a frivolous question, I’ll be celebrating gay pride.

Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in Toronto, Canada.

When soul meets body

“Come on babe, we need to get closer! It looks like there’s a gap ahead.”

We pushed through the crowd and finally got within ear-bleeding distance of the stage. We arrived at the gap we had seen from some ways away, and were met with a small pond in the center of the concert ground. I guess we hadn’t added two and two when we went to this concert on a beach, and heard, almost incessantly along the way that, “the lake was up.”

We had become one with the lake.

65197096_159513941754770_6094586745271158401_nThe evening was a Thursday in June and my partner and I had just seen one of my favourite bands, Death Cab for Cutie. Death Cab found their fame in the mid-2000’s, a time which I was unsurprisingly in high school. Why unsurprising?

The spiritual relationship between a person and music is difficult to put into words. Music, for most of us, represents something transcendent, the simultaneous embodiment and understanding of our soul by vocalist and band. Music makes us feel connected and understood, not only by the artists standing before us, but by each other. Some of the closest friendships and bonds have formed through collective belting of the latest punk song on the fringes of a bloody mosh pit. Somehow, you arrive at the conclusion that, this person gets me, based purely on the fact that they also didn’t mess up the end of, “Northern Lights.”

The point is, music, for many of us, represents identity, on an existential level, and our sense of identity begins to solidify as a teenager. Not a coincidence I love crappy mid-2000’s punk and emo, my father loves Deep Purple, and his father some old guy on a scratchy microphone.

The role of music in expression cannot be understated. Whether it’s singing, “What’s My Age Again?” in your 2001 Corolla with your friends, or tearfully singing, “Always,” to yourself in the shower, music allows us to understand, express, and manage our own emotions to a higher degree.

62021206_213464446295848_7931776062685125866_nOn a primitive level, we were built for this. The part of the brain that understands music is actually completely separate from the part of the brain that controls language. There are types of strokes where people who cannot communicate through speech find success in communicating through music. Late stage Alzheimer’s can often preserve the music centre, long after language has been coldly taken away.

This part of the brain also develops earlier in human development than the language centre. Instead of a chicken/egg phenomenon, the answer here is clear. Music came first! This may be why babies coos in musical tunes, long before they tell you, “give me that food!” The point being music, in humans, gets at something primal, ancient, and fundamental to our existence.

Do you have a favourite band or song that seems to bee your go to during times of happiness or sadness? Leave it in the comments!

Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in Toronto, Canada.

Goodbye Psychiatry, I’ll miss you!

Getting off of the 501 streetcar, I realized this may be the last time I make this trip for a while. I soaked in the Ossington Avenue intersection, after almost being ran-over by a passing car (ah, the familiar feeling), and walked towards the doors of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). As I peered at the campus, my sense of loss was accented with fondness and the strange intervention of excitement at what is to come.

I had officially departed the Department of Psychiatry, and joined the Department of Family Medicine.

19623600_1882847292039496_9104144131264872448_nI know what you’re thinking. This guy with the mental health blog, leaving psychiatry? That doesn’t make any sense!

All I can say is, we all have our own journey.

During my time in psychiatry, I worked in a variety of hospitals across the city of Toronto, CAMH being among the most memorable. I had the privilege of working with some of the world’s – that’s rights, world’s – leading experts in mental health. It was truly an honour. Psychiatry has given me more than I can possibly express through the lens of a blog post. I know that because of the Department, I am a better person, and a better physician.

So what gives? I just wasn’t happy.

The supervisors and colleagues I have worked with in psychiatry have done, and will continue to do, amazing work and help heal some of society’s most marginalized. For myself, the opportunity to see a broader variety of people, and be more of a utilitarian with my skills, as opposed to a specialist, has come to reveal itself as important to my happiness. I remain passionate about mental  health. Every single one of us is touched by mental illness, in some way. There isn’t a patient that presents to a physician anywhere in this country who hasn’t been influenced by their own psychology.

_DSC3796The absence of a mental  health system in Ontario has played a role in this difficult decision. The number of times I have recommended CBT to someone, knowing their options are 1-2 year waitlist or out-of-pocket, is heartbreaking. Discharging severely unwell people, with attenuated psychotic symptoms, or severe drug addiction, to the street, because the waitlists for supported mental health housing can be almost a decade, is gut wrenching.

This is no fault of my amazing colleagues, who at this very moment continue to fight and advocate for the patients for which they care. Malignant neglect by the government’s of this province – and frankly, the country – have resulted in a patchy system with too many holes.

It’s not all bad – change is coming. The programs CAMH continues to create and advocate for are world-class and industry-leading. But as I am sure many of you know, there remains a way to go.

Which for me, means it’s time to move on. And I’m excited. For new beginnings. For a change of pace. For brighter days. And for my General Surgery rotation (just kidding, terrified about that one!)

Goodbye Psychiatry, I’ll miss you.

Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in Toronto, Canada.

Were we meant to be alone?

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Credit: Blade Magazine

“Ha, that’s fun!” he said to himself as he looked into the camera, jovially laughing as he honked his air horn at the nonexistent mice he thought may be living in his shelter.

Meanwhile, the audience, myself included, were simply marveling at the extent this man’s beard had grown while he spent two months entirely ALONE in the Mongolian wilderness.

If you’re not sure what I’m walking about, I’m referring to The History Channel’s amazing new show, Alone. In a nutshell, the show takes ten survival experts and drops them off in the remote wilderness, entirely alone. They give them a camera to film themselves and a wireless phone to call into the crew and, “tap out.” How do you win? Last the longest.

The effect of the show is remarkable; very quickly you can observe the mood fluctuations among the participants. Careful, calm experts quickly see the onset of sometimes game-ending impulsivity. Suspicion and paranoia often sets in at the later stages, not unlike the collective psychosis shared by the cast of “Lost.”

It’s impossible to watch the show and not wonder, were we meant to be alone?

The effects of loneliness on the human mind are well documented. Loneliness can both contribute to and perpetuate a depressive episode, and loneliness is one of the number one risk factors for suicide. In Borderline Personality Disorder, one of the key features is an inability to be alone. This manifests as a fear of abandonment/intense interpersonal relationships, difficulties defining your own individual identity, and impulsivity.

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Photo by Serkan Göktay on Pexels.com

The effects of loneliness on dementia risk is one of the most astonishing revelations as we reflect on the effect of isolation on the human brain. Studies have shown that elders who endorsed feeling lonely had a 1.64 higher likelihood (that’s 164%!) of developing dementia than their non-lonely peers. Sadly, millions of older seniors in the developed world interact with absolutely nobody up to six days a week. How does loneliness affect the elderly brain? You can read my article on sleep hygiene and brain functioning here – the punchline is that our brain needs to be used to stay healthy. “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” Our brains are designed to be in relative constant conversation and use, and when people become socially isolated for two long, the brain literally starts to degrade.

What may be more surprising is the effect of loneliness on our physical health. Some studies have shown that loneliness has the same effect on cardiac health as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day! Finally, the effects of loneliness on mortality has been estimated at increasing your risk of death by 29%.

The average family size two centuries ago was 20-30. It wouldn’t be uncommon for that many people to share a small residence. While I am not recommending a return to this social structure, the effects of the decreasing family size in western society cannot be ignored. In more recent times, families that often had 10-12 member (it was not uncommon to have 7-8 children per family). Today, the average household in Canada, and much of the west, is four people and change.

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Photo by Emma Bauso on Pexels.com

As our family sizes decrease, so do our supports. The increasing emphasis in western civilization on individuality and independence has caused many of our traditional social safety nets to degrade. It’s no coincidence that children apprehended by child protection do much better, on average, when there is an extended family member able to take custody of the child.

When I think about life-draining, isolating office jobs, I find myself wondering, “who the fuck doesn’t get depressed?” When I think about borderline personality disorder, and see the impulsivity, and mood fluctuations among the Alone contestants, I find myself wondering if I am simply watching the normal reaction to isolation. When I think about dementia and loneliness, I find myself disgusted, at the collective failure of our society to embrace the people who once stood before us.

I don’t think any of us were meant to be alone.

Editor’s note: Am I saying Borderline Personality doesn’t exist? No. It’s real, and can be serious. As with all psychiatric illnesses, social context matters, and people who have Borderline Personality may not necessarily find they would have had the same struggles in social functioning if our social structure was a little different!

Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in Toronto, Canada.

Why can’t I sleep?

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Credit: CityNews Toronto

You’ve just finished watching the Toronto Raptors win their FIRST NBA championship in history. You smile at yourself for being so smart as to get this awesome 60″ plasma screen TV installed in your bedroom. You belt out one last rendition of “O Canada,” before you check the time and realize, “oh fuck it’s almost midnight!”

You hurry off to bed, and give half an honest effort to brushing your teeth in a slight haze as you digest the half dozen beer you drank over the last three and a half hours.

Finally. Bed. You lay down and close your eyes, just to be flooded with images of – Kentucky Fried Chicken?! You think that’s odd, before you remember the commercial for KFC playing repeatedly throughout the game.

You wonder, “why can’t I sleep?”

Your brain is essentially a large glob of fat, composed of microscopic cells, that act like wires. Likes wires, the cells connect to each other. Brain functioning in every domain – think attention, cognition, mood, vision, movement, everything you can imagine – is not about the individual brain cells, but rather, how the cells connect to each other.

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Credit: pixabay.com

Why is this important? We have a saying in medicine that goes like, “neurons that fire together wire together.” That means that in a baby, the cells in the brain are essentially randomly connected, with very weak connections, and the end result is very little complex behaviour. Over time, as a baby matures into a child into a teen into an adult, they use their brain more, and the brain recognizes what connections are being used. The brain reinforces and strengthens those connections, and gets rid of, “or prunes,” extra connections that are needlessly using up energy. (As a side note, this neurological phenomenon is also behind the old adage, “if you don’t use it, you lose it!”)

The end result is that the brain becomes very good at recognizing patterns. I promise that’s all of the complicated brain science!

This ability to recognize patterns is why when you smell baking blueberry pie, you may think of your grandmother. It’s why a caveman, when he smells bison scat in the air, might think there’s a herd nearby. This is an over simplification of the human brain, but on a surface level, the evolutionary benefit of pattern recognition is obvious.

As things go, in our modern day society, this ability for patter recognition can sometimes cause us harm. In particular, in bed.

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Photo by Huỳnh Đạt on Pexels.com

The number one environmental factor I see in my clinic that contributes to insomnia is screen time in the bedroom. When people spend time in bed on their cellphone, answering emails, using a laptop, or watching TV, the brain learns to associate the bedroom with a place where work is done. Train your brain to read emails in bed too often, and that’s where your brain will immediately go when you lay your head down to rest, even if you’re on vacation and haven’t received an email in two weeks. I recommend to patients that cellphones be charged at night outside of the bedroom, and that there should not be a TV in the bedroom. I myself can attest to this – when I was in medical school, I had roommates, and all of my belongings in the world (including the TV) were in my bedroom. Since beginning residency, I don’t have roommates, and I get to sleep incredibly easier, now that my TV is in the living room!

You should also not spend time in bed awake. What do I mean? If it’s late at night, and you just can’t seem to fall asleep, get up! Go in another room, and sit down for a few minutes. Some people might read a chapter of a calm book under low light for a few minutes. Once you feel tired again, which is usually within fifteen minutes, go back to bed. This way, your brain begins to associate the bed with sleep. The more often you practice this, the better reinforced those brain connections get, and it gets easier and easier. As we say in the field, the only things you should do in bed, are sleep and sex!

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Finally, we can also use our brain’s super powered pattern-recognition to our advantage, with having regularity to our sleep schedules. This means going to bed and waking up at the same time, each and every day, even if you don’t feel too tired at one, point, or really want to sleep in the next day (I give you a free pass on Saturday’s). This can be difficult at first and you may find you become slightly under slept. Don’t worry, hang in there! I promise that it will get easier, with practice!

Hopefully you find this helps you and your sleeping patterns (ba-dum-pshhhhh)!

 

Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for more on sleep hygiene and the effect of day/night cycles on sleep!

 

Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in Toronto, Canada.

The first patient I cured

“So ya, that’s everything that’s going on…”

There was a long silence before I responded, “that fucking sucks, it really does.”

“You’re telling me…”

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I had just started as a resident doctor at a hospital in Ontario, Canada, and was working with one of the first patients I would ever follow in my outpatient psychiatry clinic. I met a woman, Ms. G, who worked as an engineer. Ms. G had been referred to the clinic by her family physician (known as a general practitioner outside of Canada) for an assessment of low mood and sleep disturbance.

As these things go, you get some information in advance of the consultation from the referral form. Ms. G had never been involved with the mental health system. She was in her 50’s, married, and had three adult children. She was also not presently taking any medications.

I’m excited. A blank slate, a canvas ready to be worked with. So much potential. I quickly opened my copy of Prescriber’s Guide, and reviewed the starting doses for all of the basic antidepressants. Would today be my first fluoxetine start? Sertraline? Maybe even escitalopram?

The consultation time quickly arrived and I stepped out into the waiting area to ask for my client. Ms. G was average height, was wearing business attire, and had been using her cellphone immediately prior to my arrival, which she peered at through a pair of thin, golden reading glasses. Ms. G shook my hand and we walked together to the office.

Ms. G and I spoke for almost an hour. She detailed her struggles with low mood, decreased enjoyment in life, poor sleep, poor appetite, and difficulties concentrating. There were profound feelings of guilt and worthlessness. Her mental status exam was actually relatively benign. You were certainly given the impression that this person was tired and frustrated, but you certainly weren’t put in mind of someone in the throes of a severe depressive episode. With this information, I was able to determine that Ms. G met criteria for a Major Depressive Episode, mild/moderate severity.

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Ms. G also owned her house. Her and her husband had just renovated the home, and it was beautiful. That was before the flood. A month prior, Ms. G’s home was the most recent victim in a spat of Toronto city floodings. Everything in the basement was destroyed. A lot of the renovations, which included the downstairs bar and family room, had not even been properly enjoyed yet, only to be destroyed by the flood. Even worse, Ms. G’s home was the only one on her block to sustain significant damage.

“that fucking sucks, it does.”

“You’re telling me…”

Our consultation wrapped up and it was time to discuss the impression, plan, and treatment with Ms. G.

“Based on everything we have discussed, your presentation is not suggestive of any mental illness.” This peaked her interest.

“Then how do you explain what’s going on? I can’t sleep, I feel awful all the time…”

“Well, you have a lot on the go. You just renovated your home, spent tens of thousands of dollars, and now you’re faced with the flood. In a way, you’re re-traumatized every single day when you get home from work and have to be reminded of the damage, since the repairs are yet to be done. It makes sense to feel this way.”

Ms. G liked my opinion and asked me what she could do to feel better. I told her to hang in there, and to continue working on the repairs. I told her my suspicion was that she would feel a lot better once the repairs were taken care of. She would be able to move on.

I also told her I did not expect medications to have any effect on her mood. This wasn’t depression. This was an exaggerated form of a really, really bad day. I did offer a short supply of some sleeping pills which she gladly accepted.

I also told her I wanted to see her again, and I followed up with her twice over the coming months. At the second follow up, she was smiling, and I noticed the bags under her eyes were quite less pronounced.

“Good morning doctor.”

“Good morning Ms. G. How are you today?”

“I’m great – you were right!”

“I tend to be,” I said as I laughed. “But just so we’re on the same page, what are you referring to?”

“It’s finally over.”

“The renovations?”

“Yes!”

“I’m so happy for you.”

“Thanks for everything, doc! You cured me.”

Editor’s note: I didn’t cure this woman – as these things often go, time in many ways heals most wounds. This was the natural history of getting through psychological distress following something like a home flooding. This is not what I would expect to happen with true and blue depression, which often needs a combination of therapy and medications.


Ms. G met criteria for depression; that does not mean she has depression. You can meet criteria for any number of mental illnesses, and it is up to you and your doctor to synthesize all of the available information, and to interpret it in the way that makes the most sense.

 

Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in Toronto, Canada.