Case Study: Diagnosing ADD in an Academically Successful Woman

Case Study: Diagnosing ADD in an Academically Successful Woman


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Section 21

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The following case report illustrates the diagnostic dilemma for clinicians when attempting to evaluate and treat a young adult woman who has been academically successful for many years.

Client Description
“Sarah” is 23 and a recent college graduate. She was referred for evaluation because of psychological stress associated with her first year of law school. During the initial diagnostic interview, rating scales measuring mood and ADHD symptoms were completed. Sarah’s scores showed elevations of levels of distractibility, procrastination, and daydreaming.

Vegetative symptoms of depression, such as sleep and appetite disturbances, were within normal limits, but mild dysthymia, characterized as a feeling of being chronically “low,” frustrated, and demoralized, was reported. Sarah also revealed that she tended to worry “a great deal” and at times was anxious and irritable. These latter symptoms seemed to be more pronounced during the week before her periods, which were irregular.

Psychiatric history revealed that ADHD rather than dysthymia was historically her problem. Sarah reported that she has always taken longer than other people to complete academic tasks. During lectures, she often finds her mind wandering, and she characteristically has difficulty organizing or beginning her work. These difficulties date back to elementary school, but Sarah worked closely with her mother during the early years and had a tutor during high school. Now, Sarah compensates for these problems by working late hours and forgoing social activities. Sarah confessed that in order to have time to study during college, she had had only three formal dates during the entire 4 years. Forgetfulness and feelings of “always being rushed” or “late for everything” were also acknowledged. High school report cards bore this out with several comments about Sarah’s disorganization or tardiness. Despite these difficulties, Sarah was able to maintain good grades in high school and had a 3.0 grade point average in college. Neuropsychological testing confirmed superior intelligence, but some difficulties in language formulation, organization of information, and reading comprehension were noted on a psychoeducational battery. Sarah gave no previous history of psychological evaluation or treatment for ADHD or depression. Sarah was currently having much greater difficulty handling the work load of law school. She now simply did not have enough hours in the day to complete reading assignments, review her notes, and attempt other tasks of daily living such as meal preparation and laundry. She felt more stressed and depressed about her situation, and these feelings led to her decision to seek professional help. Family psychiatric history was positive for ADHD only. Sarah’s father had been treated for ADHD for several years, and a maternal uncle had both ADHD (hyperactive subtype) and learning disabilities. Medical history was negative except for irregular menstrual periods. No sleep disturbances (other than her wish for more sleep) were reported.

Case Formulation
Sarah was diagnosed as having ADHD, inattentive type, using the criteria of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition. In addition, it was thought that she had dysthymic disorder and possible premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

Course of Treatment
Treatment with the long-acting methylphenidate preparation, Concerta 36 mg each morning, was instituted. Sarah’s mood and academic performance improved dramatically. Over the first few weeks of dosage adjustment, the morning dose was increased to 54 mg. In addition, it was determined that Sarah required coverage of her symptoms for at least 16 hours a day. Thus, twice-a-day dosage with Concerta 54 mg each morning and an additional dose of 36 mg at 4:00 pm daily was recommended. Twice-a-day treatment with Concerta is off-label; however, in cases in which more than 10- to 12-hour coverage is needed, it can provide extended symptom relief. Sarah reported that she was feeling more “in control” and more efficient and productive with this dosage schedule, and, over these first few weeks, her feelings of depression lifted. Sarah also experienced less anxiety and worry in general. She also was able to fall asleep more easily and was sleeping better. No side effects other than mild initial appetite suppression were reported. Sarah maintained weekly contact for the next 4 weeks. Her progress continued until immediately before her next menstrual period, when symptoms of irritability and moodiness and an increase in inattentiveness returned. A 2-month prospective rating of these symptoms that was undertaken noted that symptoms of ADHD and PMS worsened consistently before each period. A low dose of fluoxetine (Prozac 10 mg) was prescribed for the 7 days before her period. Because her periods were irregular, a consultation with her gynecologist was recommended to determine whether low-dose sequential oral contraceptive might not also address some of these issues. Sarah was then followed monthly for the next few months and then every 6 months for a medication follow-up. Dose remained stable and Sarah continued to do well without the need for additional psychotherapy.

Outcome and Prognosis
This case demonstrates that emotional distress is not synonymous with depression among females who have ADHD. It was Sarah’s ADHD symptoms, not depressive symptoms, that caused the self-doubt, generalized anxiety, and confusion that Sarah experienced. Treatment for ADHD promoted productivity and afforded self-awareness and a general feeling of being “in control.” Had ADHD screening not been obtained on initial presentation, it is likely that Sarah’s treatment would have focused on her depressive symptoms alone, thus underscoring the importance of routine screening for ADHD in women who experience anxiety and/or depression. Diagnosis of ADHD has been reported to be delayed if an individual has protective influences such as a high IQ, a supportive family, relatively good social skills, and no symptoms of conduct disorder (Tzelepis, Schubiner, & Warbasse). Indeed, individuals who have ADHD and a superior IQ may be able to compensate academically for many years, thus running the risk of late diagnosis (Brown). This certainly was the case for Sarah, a woman whose academic performance was largely unaffected (she did have a tutor to help keep her organized in high school) by her long-standing symptoms until her ability to cope was exceeded by the demands of law school. An excellent support system and her intellectual ability allowed Sarah to compensate for ADHD and to excel academically for many years. The influence of hormonal fluctuations on Sarah’s ADHD symptoms and mood was uncovered only after the proper diagnosis was made and the appropriate treatment with stimulant medication was instituted. Once Sarah’s ADHD was under control, a clearer picture of her premenstrual moodiness and irritability and their contribution to the total symptom picture emerged. In addition, it was noted that Sarah’s anxiety and worry were the result of her ADHD, not a true coexisting generalized anxiety disorder. Concerta, a methylphenidate, was selected as the stimulant of choice, however, to preclude the possibility of increasing anxiety with amphetamines. In women who have generalized anxiety disorder this may be a wise rule to follow. For this population, treatment with both a stimulant and an antidepressant may also be indicated.
- Quinn, Patricia O.; Treating adolescent girls and women with ADHD: Gender-Specific Issues; Journal of Clinical Psychology; May 2005, Vol. 61 Issue 5, p579

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Personal Reflection Exercise #7
The preceding section contained information about diagnosing adult ADD in an academically successful woman. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

QUESTION 21
What factors may delay the diagnosis of adult ADD? Record the letter of the correct answer the Answer Booklet.

Answer Booklet for this course
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