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Who Has ADHD? It’s Not Who You Think

The cultural archetype that ADHD only affects young boys has left countless women undiagnosed and untreated. But there is hope.


We get a lot of things wrong about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a condition that affects a person’s sustainability of attention and impulsivity of actions. For starters, it is seen as a condition that only affects young boys. It also tends to be portrayed in a less serious light compared to mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. Knocking down both of these assumptions is a recent study of young women with ADHD conducted at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work of the University of Toronto.

We can easily spot the uneven and gendered representation of ADHD that has been perpetuated by the media. If the hyperactive boy archetype wreaking havoc comes to mind, you have guessed it right. Even the Oxford English Dictionary chooses to quote a 1994 New York Times article stating that “Today, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn surely would have been diagnosed with both conduct disorder and ADHD” as its cultural example. The way we have defined ADHD has excluded females from the discussion, but ADHD is definitely not limited to males. In fact, the CDC found one in 11 high school girls have been diagnosed with ADHD.

The study by Fuller-Thomson, Agbeyaka, and Lewis, published in the journal, Child: care, health and development, looked at 107 women diagnosed with the condition. The authors speculate that problems arise because girls with ADHD do not often exhibit the same symptoms as their male peers, such as fidgeting, squirming, and blurting out. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, ADHD is three to four times more common in boys than girls, but is this a real correlation or simply a lack of diagnosis? Girls with ADHD are more likely to have symptoms such as lack of concentration or difficulty completing tasks – things that may be more difficult to diagnose and that are often hidden as perceived character flaws. These discreet symptoms result in a greater chance for girls to carry ADHD, undiagnosed, into adulthood.

The serious effects that ADHD could have on young women is also often not recognized. The study found that women diagnosed with ADHD have a higher chance of also being diagnosed with other mental or physical health disorders. According to the authors, “women with ADHD had triple the prevalence of insomnia, chronic pain, and suicidal ideation” than those without it. The impact of ADHD is widespread, affecting not only mental and physical wellness, but income as well. The study linked mental health disorders with financial stress. The authors found that, “[e]ven after adjustments for age, race, education and income, women with ADHD had substantially higher odds of a wide range of problems.” The stakes are high, yet discussions like these about women with ADHD are left minimal.

Because many ADHD cases in women go unnoticed and untreated, women with ADHD may feel alone or ashamed. Continuing to broaden the conversation on ADHD and its intersections with race, gender, class, and other identities will not only show us that the disorder does not discriminate, but will help decrease the stigma. With nearly half of the women reporting suicidal thoughts, this study shows the need for a national conversation on mental health that is more inclusive.

If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts, contact a crisis center in your area. There is hope.

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Amanda Ghazale Aziz was Research2Reality’s summer student journalist this past year. While studying English Literature and Equity at the University of Toronto, she also spends her time outside of campus as a member of Femifesto. She is the kind of person who sneaks food into movie theatres, but will always bring enough to share with you.