No One’s Paying Attention to Women with ADHD

A brain scan of 3 different brains
1st: Normal functioning, smooth.
2nd: ADD brain before treatment, divots/holes in the brain, two most prominent in the frontal cortex.
3rd: ADD brain after treatment (Ritalin). Looks smoother, less exaggerated divots.

“You have straight A’s…it doesn’t seem like you really need any help.” I felt the pressure of the superintendents’ gazes locked in on me, scanning for any potential flaws I might have. I thought to myself: hell yeah, and started playing Beyoncé in my head: “post up, flawless.” The problem was not apparent to the naked eye; they didn’t realize how it would take me three times the amount of clockwork and effort to match the accomplishments of any other overachiever (disclaimer: it’s not that I struggled to figure out an answer to a problem, but rather to focus my attention solely to solving the problem). Not to mention, it was my parents who were more concerned than I was. They saw how I was consumed by school…unhealthily, because I was obsessively dedicated to any lengths necessary to prove to myself that I’m smart and capable. My parents never imagined they would have to fight with their kid to stop doing homework. 

A girl pictured on the left for "what it [adhd] is like" at a table with paper in front, looking off into space at a pattern shaped like a dog. Below is written "not able to control what you concentrate on."
On the right for "what they assume [about ADHD]" the girl is pictured at the table with the paper in front of her while she is looking at her phone. On the bottom it says "Purposefully not concentrating"

“Yet despite more than a century of research and thousands of published studies, ADHD- marked by distraction, forgetfulness and impulsivity- remains largely misunderstood by the public. This is especially true when it comes to girls and women.”

Rodrigo Pérez Ortega, author of “Under-diagnosed and under-treated, girls with ADHD face distinct risks” in Knowledgeable Magazine

Pause- I hate this definition of ADHD, because it’s easy to respond with: “who doesn’t experience that?” And it propagates the stigma of wrongfully labeling people with ADHD as “lazy.” My personal explanation for ADD/ADHD paints the inner-workings of the brain as driving twenty mph over the speed limit with the stereo blasting on a nine lane, highly trafficked highway surrounded by billboards, overhead bridges, intersections, whilst construction on site, in contrast to a smooth cruise down a one way (sounds boring, I know). 

A complex layering of multi lane highways.
What do your neurons look like?

Women are equally as likely as men to have ADHD, and recent research suggests that the disorder causes even greater emotional turmoil in women. While there has been a substantial decrease in the marginalization of diagnosis between men and women, today’s rate is still acclimated to 2.5 boys to every girl, whereas in the 90’s, scientists believed ADHD was nine times as common in boys. This leads to the unfortunate fact that women are more likely than men to go undiagnosed and less likely to receive treatment for ADHD. A number of reasons help explain this, including “outdated stereotypes of women feeling hopelessly ditzy, dumb, and depressed,” Eunice Sigler wrote in ADDitude Magazine.

Boys and girls diagnosed in the U.S., 1997-2016
Y-axis: Percent of children diagnosed
X-axis: Survey years

Under-diagnosis of ADHD in women holds roots in childhood. Girls with ADHD often try harder than men to compensate for and cover up their symptoms, where they are more willing to put in extra hours of studying and ask parents for help. Additionally, girls are more likely to be “people pleasers,” doing their best to fit in, despite knowing they’re different. 

A bunch of penguins pictured, with one different looking penguin looking directly at the camera.
pov: you’re a window in a classroom.

People who get noticed as having ADHD must be…well, noticeable, like a hooligan blowing spitballs or finding other mischievous ways to disrupt others. Boys are often more outwardly aggressive and impulsive, making them less likely to fly under the ADHD radar as women do. Therefore, girls with inattention are not traditionally thought to have ADHD. Instead, educators and others assume the problem is anxiety or troubles at home. The difference is that women tend to engage in more “internalizing” behavior than men, where they project their problems onto themselves rather than others. For example, if a boy fails a test, he’s more likely to respond with “what a stupid test,” while a girl would tend to react with a self-pessimistic attitude, “I’m an idiot.” In fact, women with ADHD are twice as likely to have major depression than those without the disorder. Furthermore, women have a much bigger history of being diagnosed with emotionally based psychiatric illnesses, and one might present emotional symptoms, but it’s the ADHD underneath that might be missed. 

2 sides of ADHD comic

It is uncommon for neurological disorders to live the single lyfe. More often, a series of mental illnesses align to form the perfect recipe for a delectable treat of insanity hotcakes. Aside from being twice as likely to have depression with ADHD, there’s a further abundance of studies that link ADHD in women to a variety of other adverse issues. Generally, women with ADHD are far more prone than boys with ADHD or other girls to self-harm. Specifically, one in four women with ADHD made a serious attempt on their life by the age of 19, and over half engaged in moderate to severe self-injury. Another major problem for women with ADHD is risky sexual behavior. Statistics show that women with ADHD have four and a half times the risk of unplanned pregnancy than women without the cognitive deficit. Finally, but not lastly, those with the most severe form of ADHD could see their life expectancies reduced by as much as thirteen years.

“We’re focusing on some of the really difficult findings…ADHD ups the risk for difficult outcomes, but it is not inevitable.”

-Joseph Biederman, Harvard psychiatrist and scientist

While there’s already an obvious presence of women marginalization, it is clear that health issues within this realm further catalyze the discrimination and harm of women throughout various walks of life. So at the least, please educate yourself, don’t fear asking for help, practice safe sex, pop some Adderall, and don’t kill yourself.

A young boy is pictured with two red fidget spinners.

3 thoughts on “No One’s Paying Attention to Women with ADHD

  1. As someone with ADHD this post really hit home. It took me a while to even get a diagnosis and I am glad more people are speaking up about this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this post and for adding your own experience to it as well. It makes a lot of sense that boys especially at a young age more obviously show signs of ADHD, but the harmful aftermath of not diagnosing girls resulting in internalizing their problems and having that also lead to depression, self harm, and anxiety is so alarming!!! Its my deepest hope that disparities in health care for women will lessen.

    Liked by 1 person

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