*Content warning: This piece contains discussion of suicide and suicidal ideation.*
After years of pressure building over tasks that felt seemingly impossible to complete, Jess Geeregat prepared to take her own life last February.
The weight of the expectations she could never meet was so overwhelming that she felt hopeless and like there was no other way out.
“Even for classes I was interested in, it felt impossible to manage my time, to motivate myself, and to hold myself accountable,” Geeregat says, contemplating her struggles from her Dalhousie University housing complex.
The pile of schoolwork had become insurmountable. The study tricks didn’t work. It got to the point where she could only get an hour of work done each day.
“I realized I was in a very bad situation.”
Geeregat’s experience reflects that of many people struggling with ADHD, or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, a developmental disorder impacting a person’s day-to-day functioning.
University of Toronto researcher and professor Esme Fuller-Thomson sounded the alarm this past December on a dangerous trend among both men and women with ADHD — they’re 56 per cent more likely to attempt suicide than those without the disorder.
Geeregat is one of these people.
Geeregat had only been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), a personality disorder impacting a person’s mood, behaviours, and relationships, at the time of her suicide attempt. She wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until May 2020, after accessing counselling through Dalhousie University.
Since then, she’s found coping mechanisms to help her manage the debilitating symptoms of ADHD — the lack of motivation, the inability to focus, and the reluctance to hold herself accountable for tasks.
Support from psychologists and counsellors has helped Geeregat manage her schoolwork, but another major source of stress — her finances — is a serious and ongoing concern. As a full-time student, Geeregat is shocked at how few resources are available to help her.
Geeregat’s experience is reflective of how much work needs to be done to address the impact of financial stress on people with ADHD. Recent research shows the issue needs more attention by highlighting the lack of resources available for ADHD individuals who struggle with their finances.
An American study for Science Advances research journal from September 2020 makes an alarming connection between financial stress and suicide rates among people with ADHD — people with ADHD who experience financial stress are four times as likely to commit suicide than non-ADHD individuals.
Understanding ADHD: The Key to Fixing the Problem
To understand how symptoms of ADHD lead people to financial stress, it’s important to understand what ADHD is.
ADHD is a disorder impacting the function and development of the brain’s nervous system. It used to be seen as a disorder exclusive to men because of the way symptoms present in them — they are more prone to the hyperactive subset of ADHD, which can look like excessive fidgeting or extremely high levels of energy.
In recent years, researchers have started to notice symptoms of the inattentive subset in adult women. The symptoms present as a lack of motivation and focus as well as disorganization.
ADHD symptoms can seem like common experiences for anyone, which makes it challenging to accept that an ADHD brain differs from a non-ADHD brain. Poor memory retention can be seen as forgetfulness and carelessness, a lack of motivation and inability to focus seen as procrastination, and poor time management seen as disrespect and disorganization.
This lack of understanding leads to a stigma toward people with ADHD and their ability to complete tasks compared to their neurotypical counterparts. Inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity are all normal behaviours, but they present more severely and more often among people with ADHD. This makes it harder to accomplish work tasks, socialize, or complete school
Research from Ohio University suggests the stigma around financial stress is one of the reasons the issue is so prominent for people with ADHD; if people don’t understand why it’s a problem, the problem can’t be fixed.
Geeregat says the heavy workload and intense curriculum of her program can be overwhelming even without the added stress ADHD symptoms bring.
She had always struggled in school but was helped by a support system of teachers, counsellors, and friends pushing her capabilities — something she lost when she entered post-secondary.
“It seems to be a trend among many people who are diagnosed later in life. They’ve been pushed and pushed and pushed, and they had this constant support system in place. But as soon as they’re sent off on their own, that’s when the problems start.”
Dr. Mitul Mehta, a neurology researcher at King’s College London explains how a functional change in how different parts of the brain communicate information is the culprit for ADHD. Chemicals that control how we feel pleasure, how we manage our emotional responses, and how our fight or flight response works are disrupted.
This change in communication leads to a structural change in different areas of the brain which impact how we make decisions and how aware and motivated we are.
A delayed diagnosis is also a barrier for people finding coping mechanisms or trying medication that would help manage symptoms of the disorder.
One reason some people don’t get a diagnosis early in life is because people with ADHD often have multiple neurological disorders — also known as comorbidities — that mask the symptoms of ADHD.
BPD symptoms can look similar to other neurological disorders like depression or anxiety, which is why doctors didn’t catch Geeregat’s lack of motivation and inability to focus as ADHD at first; they saw it as a by-product of the BPD.
“The BPD did, in a way, mask the ADHD,” Geeregat says. “The lack of motivation is obviously something that’s seen in people that are depressed.”
Geeregat says the delayed diagnosis prevented her from learning coping mechanisms and skills that could’ve helped her from feeling so overwhelmed that she tried to take her own life.
The Impact of Financial Stress on People with ADHD
An earlier diagnosis may have also led Geeregat to an earlier understanding of how her ADHD affects her approach to her finances.
“I am terrible with my finances — that’s something I’m fully aware if. But there’s not a lot of resources for people with ADHD, so I still have no idea how to fix it,” Geeregat says.
The impact of financial difficulties on an ADHD person’s mental health is a problem researchers have been looking into in recent years. A 2016 study from the University of Toronto found that women with ADHD suffer mentally more than men with the disorder — about one-third of the women surveyed said they had faced significant financial difficulties.
Rick Webster, a financial literacy expert based out of Delaware, has first-hand experience with ADHD and financial well-being through his and his children’s experiences with the disorder.
“It [financial stress] shortens life by somewhere in the range of 12 years,” Webster says. “ADHD and financial complications shorten life, and when you put them together it’s worse. The reason ADHD shortens life is partly due to financial stress, and the reason financial stress is there is probably the added friction of ADHD.”
Webster’s been working in finance for more than 20 years, and he got into the industry after going through what he calls his own “financial rollercoaster.” In recent years he started his own financial literacy company, Rena-Fi, that focuses its services on helping people with ADHD understand and manage their finances.
Filling a gap in resources for people with ADHD is a crucial step to helping people with the disorder. Webster says 61 per cent of people with unmedicated ADHD have severe financial difficulties at any given time.
“Severe has a definition — it means they’re losing something. They’ve either lost their job or they’re being evicted, or their car is in danger of being repossessed at any given time,” Webster explains. “Six out of ten people with unmedicated ADHD are walking around with that kind of stress.”
A group of researchers from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands have been studying financial decision-making in people with ADHD versus without for years. A 2019 study by the group found people with ADHD are more likely to buy on impulse or to use avoidant and spontaneous decision-making.
“It has to do with impulse control and maybe retail therapy. It has to do with ‘I don’t feel good about some part of my life, so I’m going to try and solve that problem,’” Webster says. “In a way, that’s like a narcotic, right? You feel good for a little while, but it’s severely damaging in the long run.”
“The poorer our finances are, the higher our stress gets. The higher our stress gets, the less capable we are of making rational decisions and we start making emotional decisions.”
It’s not just financial decision-making that’s hard for people with ADHD, either. Having ADHD is an added cost many can’t afford, making accessing care even harder.
Morgan Reid was diagnosed with ADHD around the same time she lost her job due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She says the pandemic has added another layer of difficulty for her trying to build her financial well-being.
“You’re sitting there and you can’t pay your bills; you’re getting calls from bill collectors. It’s a very stressful situation to be in. And the reality is financial advisors cost money, and I’m bad at saving, so I usually don’t have the money to hire one.”
Reid says she’s never been able to stick to the financial goals she sets. When she’s motivated, she makes savings plans that she abandons shortly after. This situation left her without a safety net of savings when she lost her job.
She never knew ADHD could play a role in her financial stress and inability to make a financial plan until she was diagnosed in April 2020. She assumed she was “just really bad at planning or a massive procrastinator.” Her diagnosis helped her better understand her struggle.
“I would almost say I have a little bit of forgiveness for myself,” Reid says.
When asked about the impact ADHD has on their financial situation, many people with ADHD say one of the hardest parts of managing the disorder is the “ADHD tax.”
No, this tax doesn’t come from the government.
The ADHD tax is the added cost people pay as a direct result of their ADHD symptoms. The tax often comes in the form of spending money on items that never get used because they’re bought on impulse or forgotten about.
The conversation about the ADHD tax has been popular in ADHD communities on Facebook and Reddit in past months as more people recognize their habits are a result of their ADHD.
Webster refers to it as a “procrastination tax,” which reflects the mindset of many people with ADHD: “If it doesn’t affect me now, it doesn’t matter.”
For example, he says people with ADHD will avoid opening mail if it looks stressful, so they end up paying more in late fees or missing out on opportunities.
“There’s an element of time blindness for a lot of people. It’s either now or it’s not now, and if it’s not now, it doesn’t need to be done,” Webster says.
“We all tend to discount the future a little bit, but with ADHD, sometimes frequently, it’s as if the future doesn’t exist. And that’s a problem.”
Webster says this mindset gets people into a lot of financially difficult situations, and once you get stuck in that spiral, it’s hard to get out.
Improving Financial Decision Making in People with ADHD
There’s a lack of specialized financial resources for people with ADHD. While non-specific resources can be an excellent step, they don’t put a focus on helping people with ADHD manage the decision-making skills that present differently than in neurotypical people.
The Winnipeg chapter of ADVOCIS (the Financial Advisors Association of Canada) says they don’t know of any of their members in Manitoba who specialize their services for people with ADHD.
This is the gap Webster is aiming to fill through his company, Rena-Fi.
Rather than just looking at an individual’s spending habits, Webster says Rena-Fi focuses on helping individuals understand the behaviour behind their spending habits.
“We’re not going to have someone come in and take a three-week class and suddenly their financial life is straightened out,” Webster says.
“It’s not about the math; it’s about them as a person, and them growing as a person.”
Rena-Fi hosts online courses, workshops, and one-on-one sessions with financial literacy specialists to help people with ADHD understand the “why” behind their financial decision-making.
Webster says taking this holistic approach to teaching financial literacy is important. At Rena-Fi, financial well-being fits in the second level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — you need to have financial stability in order to reach higher levels like emotional availability. Financial instability can prevent people with ADHD from maintaining healthy relationships with those close to them.
“We’re not going to be emotionally available to our family if we’re worried about an eviction noticed nailed to our door.”
Webster makes sure he isn’t pushing his clients when helping them with their finances, which is an approach he takes when helping his children manage their ADHD, too.
“We stopped pushing because people with ADHD get really oppositional,” Webster says. ”And there’s a reason for that, psychologically; they’re protecting their core self.”
“They’re three feet tall, and the world’s eight feet tall as far as they’re concerned. You can’t push people with ADHD — you need to attract them.”
Some ADHD advocates suggest getting a financial planner to offload some of the stress of trying to manage finances, even if their services aren’t specifically for people with ADHD.
When FP Canada (the Financial Planning Standards Board) and Leger did a study in July 2020 to gauge Canadians’ financial stress levels during the pandemic, they found Canadians who use a financial planner are less stressed about their money. In turn, those who don’t use a financial planner are twice as likely to say money is the most significant stress in their life.
A financial planner is a long-term solution; a financial advisor is like tape over the hole.
While Reid may not be able to afford financial services like an advisor or planner, she says her psychiatrist prioritizes helping her learn how to become more financially responsible and literate. She takes an approach that combines everyday coping mechanisms with ADHD medication.
“[Medication] doesn’t make things perfect, but it helps with the wiring of my brain,” Reid says. “I find I have more motivation, and I’m able to pay attention a lot better with it.”
Her coping mechanisms push her to accomplish the small tasks that can feel impossible to get done for many people with ADHD.
This includes breaking down tasks into more manageable steps so it doesn’t overwhelming, she says. “Others are to count to five and just do something. It doesn’t matter if it’s the whole task or just some part of it — it helps combat the procrastination.”
She says the best approach to managing her ADHD is to not rely on just medication, just coping mechanisms, or just therapy.
“That gives you the best results because you have multiple sources of ways to help yourself.”
Geeregat has coping mechanisms to help manage aspects of ADHD, like mindfulness practices and physical exercise to burn off stress. She says it’s trial and error for what methods work, and she uses a mix of suggestions from her counsellor and online resources.
While there are some resources in place and there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to managing finances and ADHD, Geeregat thinks early identification is a critical first step.
This could include more research on how symptoms of ADHD present, specifically in girls, and more awareness among teachers and parents.
“They need to say ‘hey, just because your kid isn’t bouncing off the walls, look for other ways they’re struggling’ so they can try to get that early identification.”
While Geeregat has crucial coping mechanisms that she says are improving her mental health, she’s not getting the help she needs to manage her financial stress.
The University of Groningen research team says in a March 2021 study that the problem could be fixed by developing teaching and coaching programs to support adults with ADHD when dealing with finances. The study highlights how crucial it is to immediately address financial decision-making skills in adults with ADHD so all people with the disorder — people just like Geeregat — can understand how to make good financial decisions and be financially independent.