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Throughout her life, mental health nursing student Heather has felt different, but it was only in May 2022 that she was finally diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

“I’ve always struggled to fit in. I thought it was normal to feel like that,” says Heather, who is currently in her final year of a two-year Masters degree. “Having a diagnosis has helped. I’m learning more about how it affects me.” 

Having experienced some mental health issues, she had previously been diagnosed with depression and anxiety. “I do get depressed and anxious, but I never felt that was the actual issue,” says Heather. “Now I know there’s nothing wrong with me – it’s just how I am.” 

What is ADHD?

ADHD is characterised by various effects, including poor attention or hyper focus, hyperactivity, restlessness, impulsiveness, overworking, difficulty relaxing, forgetfulness and excessive talking. These will vary from person to person. 

But individuals with ADHD also have a number of different strengths, including: being creative and entrepreneurial, solving problems, having empathy and sensitivity, being energetic, enthusiastic and interested in new things, and being hardworking. 

One of the positives is I really thrive in stressful or crisis situations 

As a nursing student, Heather finds listening to lectures a particular struggle. “Sometimes I feel like I have to leave because I’m going to cry,” she says. “I’m intelligent and if I were to have that information in a book I could read in my own time, I would retain it. But because I’m sitting in a lecture theatre and being told I must learn the information right now, my brain rejects it.” 

Heather’s advice for students with ADHD

  • Talk to your university and placements teams as soon as you can. “And try not to discuss your ADHD in a way that makes it sound like an inconvenience,” Heather advises. 
  • Ask for the support you need. “Tell people you might feel overwhelmed at some points,” says Heather. 
  • Point out the positives. “Remind people that you’re the kind of person a team needs, because you’ll get everything sorted and are very efficient,” she says. 
  • Remember that everyone has their own mental health experiences. “We all have different things going on,” says Heather. “It’s important to remember we’re all facing different challenges.” 
  • Find your own coping strategies. “I write a journal and do yoga a few times a week,” says Heather. “Exercise is a big thing for me. I run and do high intensity exercise too, because it tires me out in a good way. It’s about releasing that pent-up energy.” 
I write a journal and do yoga a few times a week
  • Try to pace yourself. “If I have a lot of things in my diary, I try and prioritise what’s most important and then I might cancel others to give myself more time,” advises Heather. “In nursing, it’s so easy to take on too much. I have to respect my time enough not to constantly fill it.” 
  • Beware of impulsive spending. “As a nursing student, you get quite a large sum of money every four months and it can be tempting to spend it all in the first month,” says Heather. She budgets carefully, making sure her card details aren’t logged on any websites. “The effort of having to find the card and then put numbers in is usually enough to put me off buying,” she says. Look for banking apps too, where you can set your own limits and targets. 
  • Be careful about what you look at online about ADHD. “Some of the information out there is questionable,” says Heather. “Try and make sure it’s evidence-based.” She recommends ADHDadultuk

Heather on steps 630x420

Deadlines can also be a source of stress. “I have to be in a specific environment and eliminate any distractions,” says Heather. “I know lots of people without ADHD experience similar issues, but for me, it becomes overwhelming and takes over. It affects my ability to work to my full potential.”

Learning how to manage her time is a constant challenge. “Even though I have a diary with everything planned, no matter what I do, I’m always late,” she says. “It can reflect badly on me, especially when I’m on a new ward.”

There's no point being sad about it because I can't do anything to change it 

But there are advantages too. “One of the positives is I really thrive in stressful or crisis situations,” says Heather. “My brain switches everything else off and focuses on what needs to be done, so I can work very efficiently.” Empathy is another key benefit, alongside having a different perspective. 

Coping strategies

Gradually, Heather is developing coping strategies. “A big one for me is transparency,” she says. “I tell people I have ADHD. Some may dismiss it, and that’s their choice. But most are really understanding."

She’s had mixed experiences academically, with some very supportive lecturers, while others have been less so. Peers, including students who are also neurodiverse, have provided support too. On placements, she’s found it easier to discuss her ADHD at the outset, rather than waiting. “If I tried to hide it, it would become evident quite quickly,” says Heather. “I would rather people know I have ADHD than think I’m careless.” 

Heather always tries to focus on the positives. "I laugh about it too," she says. "There’s no point being sad, because I can’t do anything to change it."

Heather outside hospital

Supporting students with ADHD

Students with ADHD should expect their university and placement providers to provide reasonable adjustments.   

These may include:

  • During exams: extra time, a separate room and rest breaks.  
  • Digital reminders.
  • Access to a mentor.
  • Study skills support, especially on prioritisation and time management.
  • Movement breaks in long meetings, lectures or sessions.
  • Longer library loans.
  • On placements, flexibility on start and finish times, increased check-ins and supervision, and reflection time.
  • Practice providers should consider swapping or delegating non-core aspects of the role that someone finds challenging. 

Students with ADHD may also be eligible for Disabled Students Allowance (DSA). “DSA can provide non-means tested funding for equipment, non-medical assistants, travel and other costs,” says Holly Chadd, RCN Disability Officer and Operational Lead. “A needs assessment identifies the support required, and this should consider placements as well as academic settings.” 

Find out more about RCN Peer Support: a network for members with lived experience of disability and/or neurodiversity. Take a look at the RCN's neurodiversity guidance resource.

Words by Lynne Pearce. Images by Steve Baker

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