By Ray Burow
There’s a disparity in how Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is diagnosed and treated between genders. Unlike males, females are diagnosed less often and go untreated for ADHD, although they may live with the chronic condition from childhood. Because ADHD is a common neurodevelopmental disorder for children, it is also — assumingly — an equal opportunity condition. While this should be true, the official diagnosis statistics tell a different story.
Of the 6 million children in the United States with ADHD, fewer girls are diagnosed with the disability than boys — just more than half the percentage (6% vs. 13%). By adulthood, more men are symptomatic than women. While women experience symptoms of ADHD as adults, unlike men, they tend to internalize symptoms. This begs the question: Are there two criteria for mental health assessments, one for men and another for women? Do a more significant percentage of men have ADHD because they’re accurately diagnosed in childhood and also as adults?
What are the factors contributing to the diagnosis disparity between genders? Does ADHD present differently in males and females, or are healthcare providers more apt to misdiagnose based on behavior and other factors? Perhaps there are fewer records of mental health assessments performed for girls because girls exhibit symptoms differently than boys. Many outside sources don’t recognize the signs of ADHD and they fail to refer those girls to physicians.
Disparities Lead to Mental Health and Workplace Consequences
According to a 2020 report in BMC Psychology, women and girls frequently internalize secondary symptoms of ADHD, potentially causing them to be mistaken for primary conditions. Emotional states like low mood, emotional instability, or anxiety often mask or overshadow the effects of ADHD.
While ADHD symptoms present differently for girls, they still experience negative consequences, similar to boys, characterized by misbehavior and poor performance in school. Left untreated, poor performance and other symptoms carry over into adulthood, negatively affecting careers, performance at work, and relationships.
On average, employees with ADHD miss more work than those without the disability, and the quantity and quality of their work is often compromised, an indication that screening and treatment programs for ADHD in the workplace would be an advantage for companies that provide them.
Companies Respond to Mental Health Issues
The Society of Human Resource Management released a 2022 Mental Health Benefits Study, which indicates that 78% of companies currently offer mental health resources or plan to do so for employees. The study doesn’t specify employees with ADHD or the prevalence of women in the workplace who are diagnosed. Still, it does claim that employees who gain access to mental health resources and support from employers “stand a better chance of remedying feelings of burnout, exhaustion, and hopelessness while also reducing stress.” This includes women who weren’t diagnosed as children, haven’t yet been diagnosed or are living with the disorder in adulthood.
Addressing mental health issues, such as ADHD, in the workplace isn’t only beneficial to employees’ overall mental health but also to the company. Eighty-eight percent of human resource professionals believe productivity and employee retention increase thanks to such services. This is essential, given that the World Health Organization reports a global loss of $1 trillion dollars in productivity due to mental health conditions.
Turning the Tide
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the diagnosis of mental health disorders increased, including those of women with ADHD. Physicians prescribed women more medication, indicating the gender sought help for ADHD symptoms.
The pandemic took a toll on mental health as people were forced into stressful situations, including daily lifestyle changes and lockdowns. The combination of more stressful situations and the emergence of telehealth contributed to increased diagnosis, specifically among women.
There are multiple reasons for an increase in the diagnosis of women with ADHD. Women are more apt to seek diagnosis, lessening the outcomes of drug and alcohol abuse and a shortened life expectancy.
U.S. companies are also helping turn the tide and close the gap between the genders as it applies to mental health assessment and diagnosis for ADHD. More employers recognize the necessity for programs that address mental health issues in the workplace.
Increased knowledge of how ADHD presents itself in females is also an important part of addressing these disparities. In addition, parents, school counselors and other informants can refer younger females for ADHD assessments so that health professionals properly diagnose the disorder — and not simply its symptoms.