Opening up about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder helps kids and adults

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      Vancouver park commissioner Sarah Blyth remembers when her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder was so severe that she considered ending her life.

      “I would always be scared to end my own life, but I think, when you don’t fit into the world the way everyone else does, and you don’t understand why and you don’t really know what to do about it…you know you’re just as smart as everyone else, but you’re just not able to do the same things,” Blyth, who just turned 39, told the Georgia Straight while sitting in a Kitsilano coffeehouse. “I think that it can be confusing, especially for young people.…I am sure there were times [I was suicidal], but I could never do it. I’ve thought about it.”

      According to the provincial education ministry’s online information on ADHD, approximately three to five percent of school-aged children have the condition, which is a neurological disorder whose sufferers usually exhibit “significant impairment related to inattention and/or hyperactivity and impulsivity compared to average children of the same age”, the special-education section of the ministry website states.

      Downtown-based neurotherapist Dr. Paul Swingle defines basic ADD as “neurological imbalances that affect the ability to concentrate”.

      He said that, for people who have to focus for long periods and think on their feet in the political arena, ADHD “can be a real problem”. And even renowned author Ernest Hemingway was not spared its vagaries, he claimed.

      “It’s said Hemingway always wrote standing up,” Swingle said by phone from his office. “He had a typewriter on a mantle-like shelf. There are individuals who pace up and down in terms of doing their reading and studying.”

      To counteract the more stressful elements of her condition, Blyth said, she has started doing yoga, thanks to her job comanaging the West Cordova Street–based New Fountain shelter, owned by the Portland Housing Society, which offers the classes. She said she also loves getting out on the soccer field, and plays (mainly) defence for PHS outfit the Portland Phoenix.

      Not surprisingly, Blyth said she looks back on her school days with a certain horror but has learned to have a sense of humour about what were chaotic days.

      “Well, you’re more aggressive,” Blyth added. “You’re different socially, I think, when you’ve got attention deficit disorder, especially when you’re hyperactive, because you tend to be a bit impulsive. So you’re poking other kids and fighting. I was a big fighter and a big poker, you know?”

      Now Blyth is going public about her condition, she said, in part so that other kids won’t suffer the same way she did.

      “Mainly, I want to raise it because it’s more about learning disabilities and mental-health issues and kids growing up, and I feel like, maybe if they looked at me, they could go, ‘Well, she’s sort of doing stuff with her life, even though she had challenges growing up,’ ” Blyth said. “That’s why I wanted to, because I know that young kids suffer. When I was told as a kid that I had a learning disability, you think there’s something wrong with you. You know that you are different and you learn differently.”

      A long-time educator and school psychologist, Sarah’s father, Forbes Blyth, said he and Sarah’s mother, Nancy, were always supportive of their daughter—a fact Sarah acknowledged during the interview. He said he remembers a tough period for Sarah until she really changed things around when she was about 25 and sought counselling after going through the bleak, dark period.

      Now, Forbes said, he is “not at all surprised” that his daughter wants to be a role model for others. And she plans to run for another term on the park board in Vancouver’s civic election this November.

      “She’s personable and people like her,” Forbes told the Straight by phone. “She’s able to accomplish things, consensual goal-setting type things. People are happy when they are around her and they’re happy after they’ve been around her. I’ve always known that she’s had those qualities. To me it was the most natural thing imaginable, that she would get into the public life. She sort of was already. She was in the Vancouver Skateboard Coalition. She was a founding member of that.”

      Pete Quily, a local ADHD coach who has ADHD, told the Straight he was pleased to hear about Blyth’s coming-out.

      “I wish more politicians had the guts to do that,” Quily, who majored in political science at the University of Alberta, said by phone. “I think one of the things that nowadays people want from their politicians is honesty. And if you’re asking for honesty, it can’t just be, ‘Honestly, I’m just going to tell you all the good things I’ve had, and none of the possible things that could be negative.’ And ADHD can be both negative and positive. One of the positive aspects of a politician [with ADHD] is, they are curious. They are going to ask questions, right?”

      Quily also noted that people come out over allegations they’ve cheated on their spouses, or that they evaded their taxes, “but rarely over an inherited neurological condition” such as ADHD.

      Swingle said the problem with adults with ADHD is not really the neurology.

      “That we can deal with pretty efficiently with neurotherapy,” Swingle said. “The problem is the psychological baggage as a function of the effects of the condition.”

      A 40-year-old male with ADD that’s been untreated is a good example, the doctor added. Such a person will walk into his office, sit down, and say he’s just laid-back, but disorganized.

      “I look them in the face and I say, ‘You don’t believe that for a moment,’ ” Swingle said. “They can’t hang on to a job. Their relationships are crashing all the time. I can fix the neurology easily, but making sure this guy understands that there is a behavioural issue here, that’s the real challenge.”

      In closing, 66-year-old Forbes Blyth admitted he himself almost certainly has ADHD, or at least ADD, and recalled when his teacher wanted to “make a change” for him out of the regular class—and into a special-needs class—back before ADHD officially existed.

      “We’re talking 1952, so it’s a while ago,” he said. “My mother refused, you know? She had a temper tantrum, as red-headed Glaswegians are wont to do. She got the support of my family doctor.”




      Sep 7, 2011 at 3:05pm

      While I admire Ms Blyth for having the courage to speak out about her condition, the fact is Ms Blyth hasn't been a positive advocate for children on Park Board. How can you be when you have taken the axe and made major cuts to inner city children's summer camp programming, Took the boots to and eliminated the children's farmyard and petting zoo in Stanley Park and introduced user fees for six year olds when previously six year olds did not pay to access park board programs. Plus Ms Blyth also voted to eliminate the Mount Pleasant outdoor pool for children which was the only remaining outdoor pool for children in the City. This is what voters need to look at when deciding whether to re-elect Commissioner Blyth.


      Sep 8, 2011 at 1:54pm

      Your mental health and your political affiliation seem only in-part related. If you're a Tea Party right winger like Harper, then you're insane.

      Otherwise you're medical condition does not really define your politics. Well said JamieLee. Good for someone to struggle in the face of their adversity, but this is hardly the story of perseverance. Her father was a psychologist, she comes from a dominant group, she was diagnosed at an early age - hardly a meaningful story.

      Donald Ross

      Sep 8, 2011 at 2:15pm

      This isn't about her political record, which is compromised by budget issues, it's about her struggle with and 'coming out' about her ADD.

      Pete Quily

      Sep 8, 2011 at 5:20pm

      Thanks for printing this article and thanks again Sarah Blyth for having the courage to come forward and go public with ADHD.

      The stigma against ADHD is so strong that many are afraid to do so, even those who work in the mental health field in BC. Most adults with ADHD are undiagnosed and untreated.

      As someone who started getting involved in politics at age 16 and has been a long time political junkie ever since, I believe there are many politicians who have ADHD.

      I've talked to people who work on political campaigns behind the scenes and they agree.

      Sarah Blyth is the first politician I know in North America to have the guts to go public with it. Hopefully others will follow

      While there are many negatives with having ADHD, there are also many positives.

      Here are some positives of having ADHD as a politician

      always curious
      not afraid to ask questions
      good at multitasking
      good at scanning their environment and noticing what others miss, except for paperwork:)
      high energy for those 14 hour days
      can hyperfocus for hours like a laser IF interested
      can think outside the concept of a box
      creative problem solver
      good in a crisis
      not afraid to question or challenge authority
      not afraid of changing the status quo
      very adaptable
      verbally quick on their feet

      Hopefully this will help remove the stigma of ADHD and encourage people to seek diagnosis and treatment of ADHD.

      Maybe even encourage Christy Clark to re-opening the BC adult ADHD clinic that BC Liberals closed, Christy claimed “I’m Absolutely Committed To Working With You On It” but it's still closed and the NDP has been totally silent on it.

      Pete Quily
      Adult ADD Coach


      Sep 9, 2011 at 1:52am

      Congratulations Ms. Blythe on having the courage to come forward and admit to having ADHD. You are a very brave woman in today's modern business world of intolerance, ignorance and bullying. While most of us suffer in shame and silence, the burden we carry is of public humiliation and harsh judgement, the proverbial round peg in a square hole in almost every situation. Some day we will no be judged by our disabilities but by our amazing talents, tenacity and creativity. Thank you for breaking new ground !

      Alice W

      Sep 10, 2011 at 5:10pm

      ADD seems to be common and mainstream disorder to me. I don't attach a stigma to it. I'm glad she talks about her experience so others may identify with the symptoms and know they are not alone and in fact are quite normal.


      Sep 11, 2011 at 10:21am

      I want to thank MB and the GS for helping to make it easy for me to talk about having ADHD. I have had an amazing response from people who have ADHD or other mental illness, all kinds of interesting people. The truth I have learned is that people with "mental illness" are in fact some of the most creative intelligent people there are. Unfortunately some end up falling through the cracks which sometimes makes us stronger but if u don't have good support life can be difficult. Just remember if you are diagnosed with a mental ilness that you life will likely be more interesting than the next person, it's your life , no one is perfect, enjoy it:)


      Sep 11, 2011 at 7:01pm

      I spoke out about these problems and how it has an effect on homelessness and mistaken for mental illness a long time ago (2008 election), only Mr. Sean Bickerman (as far as candidates) responded positively. From Dyslexia to Dysgraphia, and so on...ADD, ADHD. Or I call bored creative personality. I worry about the drugging and forced treatment that may come from this (I am MindFreedom's Vancouver, BC affiliate). I grew up with severely learning disabled, severe ones. They never disappear, you fight them, get a bit more resistant, although can manifest in other ataxia related disorders in theory. It's good she refers to Neurology, when many will call it lunacy. I can see she boarded and shit to focus things. Nice statement lady. But the issue of medication and forced treatment is and always will be a concern. Man the fight thing, I remember I threw a desk in 2nd grade, didn't know my own strenth.


      MindFreedom Vancouver, BC
      Mayoral Candidate to be and been,


      Sep 12, 2011 at 9:30am

      We would like to commend Ms. Blyth on coming forward publicly regarding her ADHD. She is the first politician we've known about ever to have done so!

      Stigma is and has been a huge issue in not only politics, but the educational system, too. Parents have this same issue when trying to advocate for children in the school system.

      Any Human Rights cases that actually are brought about go into settlement; so the details are never released and a legal precedent is never set.

      We continue our advocacy efforts with the government in an effort to change that and are spear-heading an alliance of ADHD organizations to hopefully give us a bigger voice in dealing with government and educational advocacy issues.

      Thank you for helping to remove the stigma and promote better ADHD awareness. Hopefully, this will encourage more public figures to do the same.


      Sep 22, 2011 at 5:25pm

      Stigma is largely only effective if you apply it to yourself, it works when you fear the hype or "popular thoughts" people try to interject; clearly on an election year she found the courage to expose it. I remember growing up LD and still have it a bit less severely and when ever "special" or something I suspected they were thinking the slang tern "retard" or "stupid." Fuck, I am retarded, in a literal sense but more by hypospadius crippling, Never held me back from a vocab, state schools tried to though.