The Reason of Young Women Are Getting Treated for ADHD Symptoms

More women in their 20s are being diagnosed with ADHD symptoms and getting treatment. These three women’s stories shed light on why and offer hope for other silent sufferers…

A generation ago, young women with ADHD were more likely to have their symptoms overlooked or misdiagnosed during childhood and adolescence.

Now, they are emerging as the group with the biggest jump in diagnosis of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, at least as measured by prescription use.

Prescriptions for ADHD medication for women ages 24 to 36 jumped by 85% from 2008 to 2012, according to a report by Express Scripts, a company that manages prescription benefits.

The reasons vary. Partly, the checklist of ADHD symptoms was drawn from the behavior of boys when the disorder was viewed as a hyperactive-boy issue, says Kathleen G. Nadeau, Ph.D. a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating women and girls with the disorder.

Also, girls are often better at coping – they try to be “good.” And many doctors and mental health professionals were more likely to diagnose young women with depression, not ADHD.

“Depression is the most common prior diagnosis when a woman is finally diagnosed with ADHD,” says Nadeau, who has written several books on the subject, including, with fellow psychologist and ADHD expert Patricia O. Quinn, Ph.D., Understanding Women with ADHD(Advantage Books).

Joffe had always been a bright student, though in second grade in the San Francisco Bay Area, she got into trouble for talking in class and not following directions. Her disruptive behavior continued through middle school.

Parents, teachers and even friends told her to get it together, and she did, learning to control her behavior.

While studying at Duke University, the lack of structure and family support, and fall-off in her exercise routine, worsened her problems. Finally, overwhelmed at age 18, a doctor diagnosed her with depression and prescribed an antidepressant.

“It made me feel like a zombie,” she says now — and she stopped taking it. She resolved to just cope as she always had, and did it well enough to become a producer.

Until her coping mechanisms didn’t work anymore.

Two years ago, Joffe and her mother were shopping at a furniture store to outfit her new San Francisco apartment.

Joffe, then 29, already had been feeling stressed by the change in job and surroundings, and she was lonely. There, in the store, she just “shut down,” unable to make any decisions.

“There was too much sensory overload,” she says.

“A week later my mom called and said, ‘Did you ever consider you might have ADHD?’ and she started reading me this checklist of symptoms she had found online,” Joffe says.

The list sounded as though it had been written for her.

Since then, Joffe has been taking ADHD medications and going to therapy. She also started Kaleidoscope Society, a website that helps women with ADHD connect, and get information about the condition.

An Incomplete Diagnosis
Many therapists more often associate depression with women, not ADHD. “Clinicians are more inclined to see the depression and treat the depression,” Quinn says.

And frequently, depression isn’t a misdiagnosis, Nadeau says. It’s just an incomplete one. Depression, anxiety and other mental-health issues are often found alongside ADHD.

Rene Brooks
That’s how things are for Rene Brooks, a 31-year-old health insurance worker in Harrisburg, Penn.

For her, a depression diagnosis was one step in the right treatment, and she still takes an antidepressant.

But she also takes medication for ADHD, and works closely with an ADHD coach.

“Medication has definitely changed my life,” Brooks says. “People who are anti-ADHD medicine don’t have any idea what it’s like to have the condition. It’s night and day – you feel like somebody turned your brain on.”

Brooks’ case is unusual in several ways — her mother and doctor refused to acknowledge any disorder, even though her teachers did.

In grade and middle school, teachers noticed how Brooks was talkative in class and easily distracted, and they sent her for screening. Both times, the results pointed to ADHD, but the schools failed to ask for parental permission before the testing.

So her mother rejected the label and took Brooks to a pediatrician who recommended only that she be “given more responsibilities.”

That didn’t help. And she still had trouble focusing.

“I remember getting in trouble a lot for forgetting things,” she said. “I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t remember things the way other people could.”

And “homework was my daily nightmare,” she adds. “I could never sit still and do [it].”

Still, Brooks got good grades and attended Pennsylvania State University, but dropped out when the pressure and lack of structure became too much. She got a job and did well, until the symptoms caught up with her a few years later.

At age 25, deep depression led her to a therapist, who learned about the schools’ earlier recommendations and helped Brooks get ADHD treatment and coaching.

“Coaching has been a huge help in working through a lifetime of habits to undo, and shame” of having ADHD, Brooks says.

Like Joffe, Brooks uses her experience to reach out to others. She’s started a blog, Black Girl, Lost Keys, targeted to other African Americans like her.

“Mental health is stigmatized, but especially for us,” she says.

She hopes others will recognize ADHD symptoms and get over shame they might feel about a diagnosis.

The most common times for women to seek help used to be either in their late 30s, when they recognized their own symptoms in their children’s diagnoses, or in perimenopause, when hormonal changes would make it harder to cope.

Now, young women are taking the reins, thanks to a new generation of mental health professionals who are better informed about ADHD.

Like Brooks, Mariela came from a background that emphasized self-reliance. She and her mother immigrated to Florida from Nicaragua when she was 3, and she was expected to overachieve to succeed in their new country.

Her hyperactivity, where she participated energetically in class, usually with the right answers, looked more like a reflection of her brightness than a disorder.

In fact, the 29-year-old copywriter from Belle Glade, Fla., was diagnosed with ADHD only three years ago.

Like other women, she first sought help with depression, after a long, contentious relationship with her boyfriend fell apart. But her therapist noticed the underlying symptoms of ADHD.

Since then, treatment has helped her build her career and take care of herself.

“It helped me see things with more clarity and do things without anyone there to enforce or make me feel bad that I didn’t do it,” Mariela says.

All these young women have more in common than just their recent diagnosis.

They are willing to confront the condition, and refuse to be ashamed of it or hide it, even while wondering how their disorder will be viewed by others.

“It was difficult to come out publicly about this,” Joffe says. “A lot of women said they didn’t want to be publicly associated with [Kaleidoscope Society]. It takes a lot of courage, because there’s still a lot of stigma around the issue.

“But my story is not about me, it’s bigger than I am,” she says. “I want to start a new conversation on ADHD, because I felt everything I saw was clinical and negative and depressing.”

For more information and expert advice, visit Lifescript’s Adult ADHD Health Center.

How Much Do You Know About ADHD?
Do you battle inattention and restlessness? You could have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). About 8-9 million adults have ADHD. Many adults are unaware of their disorder, because it was never diagnosed in childhood. Find out with this quiz how much you know about this common disorder.