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Priory experts discuss the new, recently reported ‘phenomenon’ of an increase in diagnoses of attention deficit disorders amongst women.

  • Priory psychiatrist says the number of adults presenting with attention deficit symptoms has increased five-fold in the past decade
  • Experts highlight growing awareness that anxiety and cognitive issues associated with menopause can aggravate existing or hidden attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms
  • More women than ever are now being seen in clinics with symptoms in their late 40s and 50s
  • Discrepancies in diagnosis stem back to ‘classroom stereotypes’

Specialists from Priory, the UK’s largest provider of mental health services, say the number of adults coming forward with symptoms associated with attention deficit disorders has increased five-fold in the past 10 years.

In the UK, prevalence of ADHD in adults is estimated at 3% to 4%, with a male to female ratio of approximately 3:1 (in childhood, 5:1). But, due to myriad factors, the prevalence of women seeking professional advice and a formal diagnosis in later life is growing, with some clinics reporting that the ratio of adult patients currently stands at 3:2.

Whilst experts often explain that girls and young women are more adept at masking neurodiverse symptoms (perhaps being ‘labelled’ as anything from ‘dreamy and quiet’ to a ‘hyper-focused overachiever’, whereas a boy in the same position might receive a swifter diagnosis due to perceived ‘naughty and disruptive’ behaviour), improvements in symptom awareness, coupled with the pressures individuals have had to deal with during the pandemic, suggest the ‘mask’ is slipping.

“There is also growing recognition that menopause – and the associated impact on anxiety levels and cognitive problems - can aggravate existing ADHD symptoms,” explains Dr Leon Rozewicz, consultant psychiatrist at Priory Hospital North London.

“Women are therefore seeking help in their late 40s and 50s - and this presentation of symptoms, which may have gone unnoticed and untreated since childhood, is becoming increasingly common.”

Dr Paul McLaren, of Priory's Hayes Grove Hospital in Kent and Priory's Wellbeing Centres in London, continues: “There are multiple reasons as to why so many girls and young women seem to slip through the net, missing out on an early diagnosis of ADHD. It may be that some girls learn to internalise their feelings and symptoms, meaning that their male classmates are more likely to be referred for further investigation by their teachers and parents. Traditionally, girls have been better at implementing coping strategies to disguise feelings of chaos or impulsivity – a ‘skill’ they carry through with them to later life.

“However – and this is a positive development – we may now be seeing a surge in cases amongst women because of increasing public discussion and awareness across the media.

“This trend may also reflect the increasing identification of symptoms in children, with parents then recognising those traits in themselves.”

Indeed, recent conversation (and subsequent campaigning activity) has recently been focused on mothers of children with autism who have also been diagnosed with ADHD themselves. 

TV presenter, Christine McGuiness (who fronted a moving BBC documentary with her presenter and comedian husband, Paddy, about challenges of bringing up their three children, all with autism) has recently spoken out about her own diagnosis with ADHD aged 34.

In adults, the symptoms of ADHD can present as a range of behaviours, including:

  • Poor organisational skills which can affect your ability to carry out work-related tasks or manage finances
  • Frequently starting new projects before finishing old ones
  • Finding it difficult to focus on tasks or prioritise work
  • Forgetfulness and frequently misplacing or losing things
  • Restlessness that can make it difficult to complete lengthy tasks
  • Difficulty keeping quiet and not waiting your turn to speak in meetings or general conversation
  • Mood swings, irritability and extreme impatience which may affect relationships both at home and at work
  • Struggling to cope in stressful situations
  • Taking unnecessary risks
  • A reduced sense of danger

Dr Rozewicz adds: There is a real need for the outdated gender stereotypes about ADHD to be redressed. Girls mustn’t be overlooked just because they’re not troublesome. Their symptoms may well be more subtle, but it can be exhausting trying to ‘cover up’ the obvious signs, trying to make sense of the difficulties they’re experiencing and just ‘feeling different’. This stress can build up and lead to a type of burnout in later life and, as we understand more about the increasing comorbidities of ADHD (such as depression, anxiety, mood instability), women who are presenting with these conditions are now being referred to specialist psychiatrists more often.”

Priory offers a step-by-step guide for adults considering an ADHD assessment which may lead to diagnosis and then a treatment programme to ensure the condition doesn’t affect their ability to function in day-to-day life.

Coping mechanisms can include group therapy medication, and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which is often recommended for treating adults with ADHD, helping patients to change negative thought patterns about the condition.

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