ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by inattention and/or hyperactivity and impulsivity. The condition is estimated to affect between 3% and 9% of the population.
Until now, there has been a dearth of information on the effects of ADHD on poor mental health, with far more research focusing on the impact of autism on depression, anxiety and quality of life. As a result, people with ADHD have often struggled to access the clinical care they need to cope with their symptoms.
This study is the first to show that ADHD is more predictive of poor mental health outcomes in adults than other neurodevelopmental conditions, like autism.
Lead researcher, Luca Hargitai, said: “Scientists have long known that autism is linked to anxiety and depression, but ADHD has been somewhat neglected.
Ms Hargitai, a PhD Researcher at Bath, added: “Our aim was to precisely measure how strongly ADHD personality traits were linked to poor mental health while statistically accounting for autistic traits.”
“The condition affects many people — both children and adults — and the fact that more people are willing to talk about it is to be welcomed,” said Ms Hargitai. “The hope is that with greater awareness will come more research in this area and better resources to support individuals in better managing their mental health.”
The study used a large, nationally representative sample of adults from the UK population. All participants completed gold standard questionnaires — one on autistic traits, the other on ADHD traits — responding to statements such as “I frequently get strongly absorbed in one thing” and “How often do you feel overly active and compelled to do things, like you were driven by a motor?”
The researchers found that ADHD traits were highly predictive of the severity of anxiety and depression symptoms: the higher the levels of ADHD traits, the more likely a person is to experience severe mental health symptoms. Through innovative analytical techniques, the study authors further confirmed that having more of an ADHD personality was more strongly linked to anxiety and depression than autistic traits.
These results were replicated in computerised simulations with a 100% ‘reproducibility rate’. This showed, with great confidence, that ADHD traits are almost certainly linked to more severe anxiety and depression symptoms in adults than autistic traits.
Ms Hargitai said: “Our findings suggest that research and clinical practice must shift some of the focus from autism to ADHD. This may help to identify those most at risk of anxiety and depression so that preventative measures — such as supporting children and adults with the management of their ADHD symptoms — can be put in place earlier to have a greater impact on improving people’s wellbeing.”
“Further research is now needed to delve deeper into understanding exactly why ADHD is linked to poor mental health, particularly in terms of the mental processes that might drive people with ADHD traits to engage in anxious and depressive thinking.
Commenting on the new findings, Dr Tony Floyd, CEO of ADHD Foundation, The Neurodiversity Foundation, said: “This research demonstrates clear evidence of the increased risks of mental health comorbidities associated with adult ADHD. This is a step towards recognising the broader impact of unmanaged and untreated ADHD. We hope this research will lead to more research being commissioned in this area. We also hope it will result in changes to the design and delivery of health services.
Luca D. Hargitai, Lucy A. Livingston, Lucy H. Waldren, Ross Robinson, Christopher Jarrold, Punit Shah. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder traits are a more important predictor of internalising problems than autistic traits. Scientific Reports, 2023; 13 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-022-26350-4
University of Bath. “The link between mental health and ADHD is strong — so why aren’t we paying attention?.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 January 2023. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/01/230116112600.htm>.
Photo by Edi Libedinsky