Why Are So Many Adult Women Being Diagnosed With ADHD?
Amy Quinn knew something was wrong. For most of her life, she was diagnosed with anxiety, but the medication treatment did not help her feel better. She was later given a depression diagnosis, but her symptoms did not get any better even when she was put on antidepressants. From a medical standpoint, all Quinn needed to do was continue treatment and she would eventually feel better. But in reality, Quinn was miserable and it affected her studies, her relationships, and her well-being.
By a stroke of luck, while studying to be a physician’s assistant, a doctor pointed out that her behavior resembled ADHD. Quinn was told over and over again that she dealt with depression and anxiety but after years of unsuccessful treatment, she could not help but wonder if her doctor misdiagnosed her. When she brought her suspicions to her PCP, he “couldn’t believe he didn’t see it before.” At the age of 40, Quinn was officially given a diagnosis of ADHD.
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After her misdiagnosis, Quinn was empowered to help others with ADHD. Now the owner of Neurodivergent Consultants of Kansas, she knows her story is far from unique. More adults, especially women, are being diagnosed with ADHD. One study found the rate of ADHD diagnosis nearly doubled from 2020 to 2022 for women between the ages of 23-29 and 30-49.
The increased rates are no coincidence. They are a sign of a society that’s kicking stigma to the curb and redefining what it means to have ADHD. “Some of the richest and most creative people are neurodivergent,” says Quinn. “We are now seeing that a diagnosis isn’t a curse or that they are broken.”
Understanding ADHD symptoms between young boys and girls
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For a long time, girls did not fit the typical diagnostic criteria for ADHD. Teachers and parents focused mainly on signs of hyperactivity, which mainly appear in rowdy schoolboys. “The more trouble you cause, the more attention is paid to you,” explains Quinn.
Girls with ADHD often exhibit other symptoms that are less destructive. While they may not be bouncing off the walls, girls with ADHD have trouble concentrating or show a lack of motivation. After being reprimanded so many times for dozing off, Quinn says girls are more likely to internalize their symptoms, which can lead to anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Since they are diagnosed later in life, girls do not have access to extra help or academic accommodations and may look like underachievers or students who are just passing.
It’s not that the rates of ADHD are suddenly on the rise for females; it’s just that we are finally diagnosing women who should have received diagnoses during adolescence, clarifies Ryan Sheridan, NP, an integrative psychiatric nurse practitioner and owner of Proactive Psychiatry.
Social media helps women avoid masking
Masking is when people try to hide or compensate for their ADHD symptoms. Misdiagnoses can fuel the need to mask symptoms. If you think your behavior is because of depression, for example, you might behave differently than if you knew your symptoms came from ADHD. Sheridan says women have been far more difficult to diagnose with ADHD because they are better at internalizing their symptoms to appear “normal.”
Masking to appear socially appropriate, such as sitting on your hands to avoid fidgeting, can start off as a subconscious defense mechanism. “A child with ADHD hears 20,000 negative comments before they’re 10 years old in school alone,” explains Quinn. “If someone constantly tells you how you’re broken or weird, they could start masking to cover up being too much.” As you get older, masking becomes more of a conscious act to avoid getting judged for being different.
Social media is normalizing the conversation around ADHD. Videos from TikTok and Instagram have become a gateway for people to share their neurodivergent experiences and help others recognize more subtle signs of ADHD beyond hyperactivity. The increased exposure to social media has also built communities centered on mental health and helped redefine what it means to have ADHD.
What to do if you suspect ADHD
It’s never too late to get a diagnosis. If you suspect that you might have ADHD, both Sheridan and Quinn recommend talking about it first with your primary care provider. They will have you fill out some forms to see if you meet the diagnostic criteria for the condition. If you do, your doctor will refer you to a mental health specialist. They will probably make their own assessment and have you fill out additional forms to measure a person’s inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
While there is no cure for ADHD, the right treatment can help people live full and successful lives.
Before you go, check out our slideshow of the best affordable mental health apps.
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