ADHD in Women

By Vaathsalya Karpe

Take a minute to think of the stereotypes that are associated with women. What did you come up with? Chances are, you thought of at least one of the following: women are emotional, women are dramatic, women love gossip, women are so loud, women aren’t smart, women always daydream, etc. Even if you didn’t think of one of these, you might’ve heard them before, in passing comments by coworkers, memes online, on screen in cinema and on TV, etc.  

Now take a minute and think of ADHD. If you aren’t familiar with ADHD yet, what do you think of when you hear the words, “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder”? You might’ve thought about struggling to concentrate, hyperactivity, being jittery all the time, impulsiveness and more.

According to the CDC, ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood. There are three main types of ADHD: hyperactive/impulsive, inattentive and a combination of the above two. Girls tend to have the inattentive type of ADHD, whilst the hyperactive, jittery type symptoms that you usually associated with the disorder is what boys typically tend to have. 

There’s an explanation for this: ADHD was diagnosed first in young boys, due to their hyperactivity. Guidelines were written around how ADHD was taking shape in them, and research performed on them was applied to everyone else. 

ADHD is usually diagnosed in childhood but can last into adulthood. Some adults may have ADHD but just haven’t ever been diagnosed. Out of them, 50–70% of women go undiagnosed, because ADHD presents itself differently. 

Girls’ symptoms are more of inattentiveness and disorganization. Girls also tend to develop ADHD later than boys. While ADHD in boys usually can become less intense after puberty, it’s just the opposite for girls since increased estrogen after puberty in the system of girls intensifies the symptoms. The risk for self harm and suicide attempts in diagnosed ADHD girls is 4–5 times more than that of those without it. Girls are also more likely to suffer from inattentive ADHD than compared to boys. Such symptoms are less disruptive than the others and less obvious. Women affected by the inattentive type usually find it harder to focus on completing tasks and pay attention to details. Due to a foggy memory, they may not pick up on social or verbal cues, and may find themselves more socially anxious and withdrawn.

A lot of times, symptoms are mistaken for personality traits, which makes the diagnosis difficult, and this is where the harm of stereotypes comes in. According to a study, roughly three quarters of women with ADHD are never diagnosed. Since it’s so subtle, and since there are stereotypes associated with women that mirror the symptoms of ADHD — daydreaming, being chatty or forgetful — these can be misdiagnosed as traits instead of symptoms. Most of the time, these symptoms are dismissed as personal flaws rather than serious but treatable medical issues. It’s even worse when such symptoms can be dismissed as the woman  being ‘hormonal’, menstruating, or just “being a woman”.

An analogy used in the Additute Magazine says that a hyperactive boy who repeatedly bangs on his desk will be noticed before the inattentive girl who daydreams while staring out the window. 

Women also face this unique challenge because there’s a lack of resources, public awareness, and most important of all, a lack of scientific knowledge. A lot of research is done on men and then translated to fit a woman instead of conducting separate research on how the same thing affects women as well. 

Despite there being a 55% increase in ADHD diagnoses in girls between 2005 and 2011 (quartz), girls continue to be misdiagnosed. Between 2008 and 2012, the number of overall Americans using medication to treat ADHD was 36%, but the number among women aged 26–34 rose 85%. When you diagnose it later, you have to work at treating it for longer than you would if you were diagnosed when you were younger. 

Unfortunately, the consequences are much more harsher on girls than boys, primarily due to the fact that ADHD manifests differently. 

Women with ADHD tend to let their problems pile up in secret. When these girls grow older and the symptoms of ADHD increase, they find themselves being more overwhelmed. They’re competing at more intense levels with people who don’t have ADHD and this leads to them feeling inferior, them feeling like they don’t deserve treatment, and become frantic about performing simple day-to-day tasks.

When someone has ADHD, symptoms can trigger a pleu of other mental health issues as well, including anxiety, OCD and depression. Especially if it goes undiagnosed. Some people turn to alcohol and/or drugs to cope with it. There’s also a link seen between ADHD in women and bipolar disorder, as well as eating and sleeping disorders

Generally, as women, we have difficulty navigating spaces and situations that are serious. When we express concern over something that doesn’t feel right in our bodies, we’re more often than not dismissed. Our concerns aren’t taken seriously and we’re forced to ask around for a second opinion. Not only is this expensive but it is also incredibly unnecessary and avoidable. We’re told that we cannot be in leadership positions because of our hormones, and because being a women means having volatile, unstable emotions. So many of our issues stem from people not listening to us, people thinking they know better than us despite our repetitive concerns.

Awareness can do so much to help this issue, making women with ADHD not feel alone. With enough awareness among the general public and more open conversations, one day ADHD may simply be something one lives with without the weight of shame and fear of the unknown lying on their shoulders. 

Vaathsalya Karpe (she/her) is a Staff Writer for Bell Magazine and a junior at UW–Madison majoring in Computer Science with certificates in Graphic Design, and Integrated Studies in Science, Engineering and Society (ISSuES).

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