Settling With A Brain Disorder At Varsity

“I lose myself around a lot of people, finding it difficult to focus on the lecturer only,” says a UJ student.

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By Gaby Ndongo (5 mins read)

In March 2018, Basheera Phiri, 23, found out that she has a brain disorder, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). “I felt more confused than shocked,” she says.

Basheera was doing her second year of study at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) when she found out about the disorder. “I honestly didn’t believe that I had it, especially because mental illness is not common in the black community,” she adds.

Basheera spent some time to process and settle with the fact that she needs therapy and daily medication to get through attention-demanding activities, from reading academic material, attending lectures to doing assignments.

 What is ADHD?

“ADHD is defined as a neuro-developmental (brain-developmental) disorder which can impact an individual’s working memory,” according to an ADHD guide by UJ’s Centre for Psychological Services and Career Development (PsyCad).

It is “typically characterised by diminishing ability to sustain attention and/or hyper/higher levels of impulsivity,” reads the guide. Also, the disorder is “associated with a short attention span and being easily distractible. This can have a major impact on your social, as well as your academic life.”

Dr Shabeer Jeeva who is a child and adult psychiatrist who specialises in ADHD, says: “You look at three main symptoms: impulsivity, hyperactivity and inattention.”

Individuals with the disorder can maintain attention for the tasks they find interesting or rewarding. A state referred to as hyper-focus.

“The tricky part is channelling your focus on the right thing. Before, I’d find myself spending hours watching food blogs and forget about the assignment at hand,” recalls Basheera. “I’ve learnt to manage it (lack of attention) and now I can spend a minimum of three hours studying without interruption.”

Most of the hours are spent doing something she enjoys: reading. However, grasping and paraphrasing the content remains a challenge.

“It would take multiple tries for me to be able to read a paragraph, understand and explain it in my own terms,” she says. “Most of the time, I record my lectures and listen to them when I get home because in class there’s a lot of distraction. I lose myself around a lot of people, finding it difficult to focus on the lecturer only.”

People with ADHD face learning difficulties: slow and inefficient reading, slow essay-writing, frequent errors in math calculation and writing, time-management, tasks completion, organisation and memory.

Basheera’s academics

Some of those setbacks have led to Basheera failing one of her modules in her first year of study. It’s partially because preparing for tests is a feat.

Writing assignments is easier for her. She can make mistakes and then fix them later. She prefers to start doing the assignment weeks prior to the due date. But this perfectionism can get in the way sometimes.

“My only problem is that if I get multiple assignments at once I’ll do impeccably well on the first one and terribly on the next one,” she explains.

Basheera’s social life

The disorder impacts her social life. Basheera avoids spending time with friends. She does so to prevent feeling embarrassed after constantly not doing well while seeing her friends obtain good marks.

“One of the reasons why I’d have negative thoughts and often felt like ending my life is because of the fact that I wouldn’t be doing as well as my peers in tests. And what seemed easy to them, was really difficult to me,” she says. “I was embarrassed to [the] extent that I felt useless and couldn’t talk about it to anyone because I felt [like] I’d be judged.” 

Medication “works wonders for me”

Treatment for ADHD includes a combination of exercising five days a week, a diet consisting of high protein and low carbohydrate, good sleep of at least seven hours, and meditation, says Dr Jeeva.

Mild cases may not need medication. It becomes necessary for moderate and severe cases. Behavioural therapy – like organisation and social skills training – has been recommended as the first option before medication for less severe cases. A combination of medication and behavioural therapy brings about better results, says Dr Jeeva.

Basheera says her prescribed medication, Methylphenidate HCL-Douglas 10mg, has partly made things better. “It usually [lasts] about six hours per tablet,” she says.

Methylphenidate helps one to focus and concentrate, Dr Jeeva says, as well as control the impulsive behaviour.  Although it took her awhile to get used to Methylphenidate, she says it now “works wonders for me”.

The medication can be bought in a pharmacy with a doctor’s prescription letter. Photo: Gaby Ndongo.

Her support system on campus

“I think the support I received through PsyCad helped me a lot. Attending sessions helped me to deal with all the emotions I kept bottled up,” she explains.

According to a 2017 research by the South African Journal of Psychiatry, ADHD is a prevalent psychiatric disorder in children, affecting between 2% to 16% of the school-age population.

The research says, “It is now widely accepted that an estimated 60% to 70% of patients’ symptoms persist into adulthood, with estimates of the prevalence of adult ADHD between 2.5% and 4.3%.”

Due to this persistence, there is a likelihood of several students having ADHD during their years of study at a higher educational institution.

Educational institutions often help students through their psychological centres. Wits University, for instance, has the Counselling and Careers Development Unit (commonly referred to as CCDU); as mentioned, UJ avails services through PsyCad. TOJ


ADHD Helpline: 0800 55 44 33

Reporting by Gaby Ndongo. Edititng by Magnificent Mndebele and Kupakwashe Kambasha. Feature image consists of Basheera Phiri, who explains, “My only problem is that if I get multiple assignments at once I’ll do impeccably well on the first one and terribly on the next one.” Feature image courtesy to Gaby Ndongo.

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