Distracted, impulsive: Understanding ADHD in first responders

While a lack of focus during the daily grind is a common feature of ADHD, many people with the condition also possess the ability to “hyperfocus” during emergencies


By Missy Morgan

More than once my son left the house with no shoes. We would get to the park or the store only to find he was just wearing socks. His nickname was “Drama Queen” because his world would often implode for something as simple as a button he could not fasten. And my personal favorite: When he was 12 years old, he took a stick emersion blender to a cup of ice. When the blade froze up on a chunk, he held the power button on and poked it with his other hand. He mutilated the end of his index finger, requiring several stitches. (And yes, he’d been warned not to use the blender but took the opportunity while I ran to the grocery store with his older sister.)

Not surprisingly, he was eventually diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). (Note: Although “hyperactivity” is in the name, a formal diagnosis will indicate one of three subtypes: predominantly inattentive, predominately hyperactive or combined.) ADHD is associated with lack of focus, follow through and organization. You might be thinking, who hasn’t made careless mistakes, gotten easily distracted, or lost items essential for the activity or task at hand? With ADHD, these behaviors are persistent and interfere with the person’s quality of life.

Many people with ADHD find they are often bored by daily tasks, but can
Many people with ADHD find they are often bored by daily tasks, but can "hyperfocus" during an emergency. (Photo/Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette/TNS)

What Is ADHD?

Although ADHD is often associated with unruly childhood behavior, the ADHD child will eventually grow up and those disruptive behaviors can persist into adulthood. Perhaps you find yourself unable to sit quietly in what is considered a leisure activity, like watching a movie. Many ADHD individuals have trouble waiting their turn to speak and interrupt others consistently. The lack of attention and follow-through can manifest itself in the workplace with career hopping or in relationships with several failed marriages. Those with ADHD do not exhibit these behaviors willingly; in fact they often make considerable effort to change the characteristics their family, friends and coworkers complain about. These attempts most often fail.

How do you know if you, or your child, has this disorder? A qualified doctor or therapist is the only way to truly know. They can assess the patient and give an educated diagnosis. A doctor is also the only way to receive a prescription for ADHD medications should that be a course of treatment you want to pursue.

Are First Responders More Likely to Have ADHD?

Many first responders joke about having ADHD, and in fact, the condition may be more represented in our profession. Although comprehensive research is lacking, in one study, nearly 20% of wildland firefighters exhibited signs of ADHD.

Individuals with ADHD can easily become bored or unmotivated in traditional workplaces. In public safety, where the pace is often high and personnel move quickly from one task to the next, ADHD individuals can thrive. And while lack of focus during the daily grind is a common feature of ADHD, many people with the condition also possess the ability to “hyperfocus” during emergencies.

How Can First Responders Deal with ADHD?

If you or someone in your life is struggling with ADHD, there are steps you can take. The easiest and most cost-effective is a diet change. This is particularly helpful in children and adolescents with developing minds. We have all heard the recommendation to limit processed foods. Children may be especially sensitive to added sugars, seed oils, refined grains, and artificial colors and flavors.

Stop for a minute to consider the following analogy. Suppose you own a luxury car. The fuel recommendation for that vehicle is a 92-octane premium gasoline. You can run it on 87-octane, but it will slow the performance, cause a bit of a misfire, and eventually decrease the lifespan of the engine. And if you even attempt to put diesel in a petrol engine, the result is disastrous. The same runs true for your internal organs. Cereal with low-fat milk, chicken tenders and fries, a helping of pasta with garlic bread and a small salad heaped with buttermilk dressing. These are all common meals that are loaded with unhealthy fats, refined carbohydrates, oils and flavor enhancers disguised as “natural flavoring” on the label (trust me, you do not want to know what those could be). Yet we feed these foods regularly to children with behavioral issues and expect their motors to purr along at an efficient clip.

Other non-medical interventions include:

  • Essential oil applications. Research backs the ability for our olfactory system to influence our thoughts and moods. Think of holiday baking smells and the mood or memories you get when you smell them.
  • Tapping or repetitive active behavior. These techniques essentially train the ADHD patient to wind down or focus using their own bodies as friend and not foe.
  • Behavior therapy. Working with a counselor can give the ADHD patient tools to use when self-soothing is necessary. Consistent retraining for patience and focus may feel like torture for the parent who has told the ADHD child to “get your homework done” but these skills require time and practice for a whirling brain to accomplish regularly.

Finally, medication is a possible answer. There are stimulant and non-stimulant varieties and the dose and brand make a difference. Trying to find the right one for you or your loved one can be an exhausting trial-and-error adventure. Things may get worse before you see improvement.

I personally struggled with this issue when it came to my son. I did not want to admit my son needed medication therapy. I took the diagnosis as a parental flop. My relationship with him became strained and for much of his childhood, I considered myself a bad parent. It took a couple of years and two prescriptions to wrap my head around the fact that he was regularly struggling at home and school. Once I decided to try the prescription, however, his grades and school behavior improved. He had more friendships and less need for discipline at home. But not everything was rosy. There are always side effects to medication; he experienced weight loss, insomnia and a “zoning out” zombie effect that scared me.

Reason to Hope

My experience with my son’s ADHD gives me hope for other first responders and their families struggling with this condition. My son is 20 years old now and no longer on medication. He has outgrown some of the challenging symptoms and the diet modification helps when he can stick to it. (He is 20 after all!) Achieving his high school diploma was a monumental feat, but he did graduate. He is gifted with mechanical talents and uses them as a seasonal firefighter and off-season handyman in our area. He bears the scars of his blender fiasco on his left hand, but it now serves as a touchstone reminder of what happens when impulse takes over his brain and actions. We no longer tease him about being so dramatic. Now he is just known affectionately as Blender Boy.

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