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More Seattleites have ADHD than ever, but finding meds and docs is a challenge

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An increase in awareness about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD has led to more people being diagnosed with the disorder and wider recognition of challenges faced by neurodivergent workers. But the uptick has had an unintended side effect — difficulty finding doctors and a nationwide shortage of stimulants used to treat ADHD such as Adderall, Concerta, and Vyvanse.

Jessica McCabe has played a role in opening up the conversation about people who have ADHD. McCabe has a YouTube channel devoted to the topic and she recently published a book on the subject called, “How to ADHD: An insider’s Guide to Working with Your Brain (Not Against it).”

McCabe said one unexpected offshoot of the pandemic was that people started talking more openly about what it was like to live with ADHD.

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“Suddenly, that conversation exploded, and it was really, really cool to see,” she said.

About 1 in 20 adults in the U.S. have an ADHD diagnosis. Among children the numbers are even higher. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just over 11% of kids 5-17 years old were diagnosed with ADHD between 2020-22, making it one of the most common mental disorders among children.

But that surge in diagnoses has also led to a dramatic increase in people seeking treatment and a shortage of stimulants commonly used to treat the disorder. Prescriptions for ADHD drugs in Washington state jumped 55% in six years, according to Axios, and supply is not keeping up with rising demand.

Dr. Angela Heithaus, a Seattle physician who specializes in treating adults with ADHD, said her patients often have to search for a pharmacy that has an adequate supply of Adderall or similar drugs.

“They have to call their doctor, get a new prescription, and race to the new pharmacy before their supply runs out,” Heithaus said. “This can go on and on and on to multiple pharmacies.”

McCabe said even she had trouble finding a doctor to treat her ADHD when she moved to Seattle right before the start of the pandemic.

“I ended up having to reach out to my network on Twitter and say, ‘Hey, does anybody know anybody?’” she said. “I ended up going out of network and I had to pay out of pocket for it.”

Heithaus attributed the shortage of doctors and medication to bottlenecks in the system that were exacerbated during the pandemic. The FDA announced a shortage of Adderall in 2022, and demand continues to outpace supply.

“There’ve been a lot of obstacles in the last couple of years,” Heithaus said.

Meanwhile, McCabe said she has seen more Seattle employers make changes to the work environment and workflow to better accommodate the needs of workers with ADHD. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act includes ADHD as a recognized disability.

“These things didn’t happen when we were living personally in shame and not talking about what we were struggling with,” McCabe said.

She recalled an example from her own life when she worked as a server in a fast-paced restaurant. McCabe said she was good at working multiple tables, but when she got to the end of the night, she found it challenging to do the paperwork necessary to complete her shift.

Finally, a manager sat down with her and asked what needed to change to help McCabe improve her performance with that part of the job.

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McCabe suggested putting staplers at different stations so she could complete bits of the paperwork part of the job during her shift and not have to do it all at once at the end of her shift when she was wiped out.

Dealing with paperwork is often a problem for workers with ADHD because they become easily bored, according to Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder or CHADD. Other workplace challenges include poor communication skills, a tendency to procrastinate, being easily distracted, and difficulty managing complex projects.

McCabe said the simple act of placing staplers around the restaurant so she could manage her paperwork throughout her shift helped not only only her, but also all the other servers.

“It was a great example of someone sitting down with me and asking what would help and meaning it and letting me think about what would help me,” she said.

While people with ADHD contend with a number of challenges in the workplace, the disorder also comes with unique benefits. McCabe said for people who have access to the supports they need, ADHD can be a "superpower." People with ADHD tend to be creative and have the ability to hyperfocus on the work that does interest them.

But she said the high cost of living in Seattle places an added burden on people with ADHD, because they often incur expenses as a side effect of their disorder, such as getting distracted and failing to pay bills or tickets on time.

“ADHD tax is a real thing,” she said. “Having ADHD is expensive and living in Seattle is expensive.”

Tap link to hear the the full conversation with Jessica McCabe and Dr. Angela Heithaus on Seattle Now.

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