Graziano PA, Reid A, Slavec J, Paneto A, McNamara JP, Geffken GR.  “ADHD Symptomatology andTony_Rostain_AIA-5Risky Health, Driving, and Financial Behaviors in College: The Mediating Role of Sensation Seeking and Effortful Control” Journal of Attention Disorders (2014) Epub ahead of print April. DOI: 10.1177/1087054714527792.

This study explores the relative contributions of “top-down” (i.e. effortful control) and “bottom up” (i.e. sensation seeking) mental processes to maladaptive risky behaviors in college students with ADHD.  The authors review these constructs by pointing out that effortful aspects of self-regulation involve intact prefrontal circuits underlying executive functions whereas reactive behaviors not requiring conscious mental resources are influenced by emotional stimuli and are mediated by subcortical brain structures.  Given that ADHD involves difficulties in both these domains of psychological functioning, it makes sense to explore which contribute to the onset of maladaptive risk-taking in college students with ADHD.

The authors studied 555 college students attending a southeastern university using an online survey for which they received class credit.   Participants filled out standardized rating scales to assess outcomes.  Of the total sample, 5.7% reported a history of an ADHD diagnosis and 10.8% reported elevated ADHD symptoms (> 1.5 SD above the mean) on an ADHD rating scale. There were two distinct patterns of risk behaviors: risky driving/financial behaviors and risky health behaviors.  ADHD symptoms were highly correlated with these two factors as well as with sensation seeking and effortful control.   More ADHD symptoms were associated with risky behaviors ONLY when effortful control was low.   Sensation seeking was more highly associated with risky health behaviors but not risky driving/financial behaviors. 

The authors note that the study’s reliance on self-report scales and measures limits its validity.  ADHD individuals are known to underreport severity of symptoms.  Moreover, it was not possible to detect the presence of antisocial behaviors (e.g. Conduct Disorder) that might have a greater impact on risky behaviors than ADHD symptoms.  Finally, the fact that the study was conducted on a single campus may limit the generalizability of its findings to the entire population of US college students.  (Note: Watch our Ask the ADHD Experts Session on ADHD and College Students.)

Despite these limitations, this paper reports interesting results suggesting that ADHD symptoms may not be as important as effortful control deficits and as high stimulus seeking in mediating the onset of risk behaviors in this population.    These could be important targets for psychological therapies.  It also points to the relevance of these two aspects of psychological functioning for preventive health efforts to reduce health, driving and financial risk behaviors, and for clinical approaches to dealing with patients presenting with maladaptive coping mechanisms.  

Let me tell you about a success story of mine, a college student who I’ll call Carrie. Carrie is about to finish her sophomore year in college after a very, very rocky start to her college career. She was a bright, enthusiastic and vivacious high school student who managed to get by through her intelligence, her energy, and being able, at the last minute, to get her work done. She also had very supportive teachers who gave her the benefit of the doubt if she did turn in assignments late.

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Now, Carrie thought she might have ADHD but she never went for help. She actually was kind of skeptical about it and thought she just needed to try harder. So she was active in the high school drama club and actually went off to college hoping to become a playwright someday. So, after arriving at college, Carrie became very active in one of the drama clubs on her campus. She began to stage-manage and she started hanging out with all of the drama club students and was enjoying a great deal, and contributing great deal, to the activities of that organization. She also used the same studies, strategies that she had used in high school. So she talked a lot in class but never really read all of the assignments and she’d waited until the last minute to do the reading or to turn in the papers. She found herself cramming for the exams. It turned out that she ended up spending too much time with her extracurriculars and not enough time studying.

So after failing two classes in her spring semester, Carrie was asked to take an academic leave of absence from her college. She came back home and was evaluated in our program and we did in fact diagnose her with ADHD. We explained to her exactly how it was that she had managed to do fine until college and that she had managed to get by until she was in this unstructured learning environment. We spent a lot of time teaching her about adult ADHD, we started her on an ADHD medication, and she began coming for weekly cognitive behavioral trainings sessions.

Ask_Experts_ADHD_and_College_Students_y8zpLAOver the course of the next few months, she began to get more and more comfortable with the diagnosis and with figuring out what she needed to do to get difficult tasks done. She managed to get a job in selling tickets in local theater company and eventually she decided to take some courses in community college. She did extremely well and she really figured that she was now ready to go back to college.

She went back this past year and has done exceptionally well, getting most As and a few Bs, keeping herself very organized and able to balance the lifestyle that she wants. She’s able to get the studying done that she wants, she’s able to participate in the drama club and guess what, she’s pursuing her dream of becoming a playwright and is now a full-fledged English major in good standing.

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