Adults with severe symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are more likely to experience anxiety and depression than adults with severe autistic traits, according to new research led by psychologists at the University of Bath in the UK.
This study is the first to show that ADHD is a better predictor of poor mental health in adults than other neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism.
So far, information on the adverse effects of ADHD on mental health is scarce, and more research has focused on the effects of autism on depression, anxiety, and quality of life. As a result, people with ADHD often struggle to get the clinical care they need to cope with their symptoms.
The study’s authors hope their findings will spark new research into ADHD and ultimately improve mental health outcomes for people with the disorder. ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by inattention and/or hyperactivity and impulsivity. This condition is estimated to affect between 3% and 9% of the population.
On Blue Monday (January 16) – the third Monday in January, described by some as the gloomiest day of the year – lead researcher Luca Hargitai said: “Scientists have long known that autism ADHD is associated with anxiety and depression, but ADHD has been somewhat overlooked.
“Because of the high frequency with which ADHD and autism occur together, researchers have also struggled to statistically separate the importance of ADHD and autism on mental health outcomes.”
Our goal was to precisely measure the extent to which ADHD personality traits were associated with poorer mental health, while counting autistic traits. “
Ms Luca Hargitai, PhD Researcher, University of Bath
The new research, the result of a collaboration between the Universities of Bath, Bristol and Cardiff, and King’s College London, was published this week in the prestigious journal scientific reportThat same month, two British television personalities — Johnny Vegas and Sue Perkins — opened up about their recent ADHD diagnoses.
“This condition affects a lot of people – both children and adults – and more people are welcome to be willing to talk about it,” Ms Hargitai said. “Hopefully there will be more research as awareness of this area improves. and better resources to support individuals to better manage their mental health.”
hyperactive, as if driven by a motor
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—answering questions like “I’m often drawn to one thing” and “How often do you feel hyperactive and distracted?” Forced to do something, just like you” is powered by a motor? “
The researchers found that ADHD traits were highly predictive of the severity of anxiety and depressive symptoms: The higher the level of ADHD traits, the more likely a person was to experience severe mental health symptoms. Using innovative analytical techniques, the study authors further confirmed that having more ADHD personality traits was more strongly associated with anxiety and depression than autistic traits.
These results were replicated in computer simulations with 100% “reproducibility”. This shows with very high confidence that ADHD traits are almost certainly associated with greater anxiety and depressive symptoms in adults than autistic traits.
Focus on shifting research and clinical practice
Ms Hargitai said: “Our findings suggest that research and clinical practice must shift some of their focus from autism to ADHD. This may help identify those most at risk of anxiety and depression so preventive measures can be taken – — such as supporting people with managing their ADHD symptoms — could be implemented earlier to have a greater impact on improving people’s wellbeing.”
According to senior author Dr Punit Shah, Associate Professor of Psychology at Bath, another important aspect of the new research is that it advances the scientific understanding of neurodevelopmental conditions.
“By addressing shortcomings of previous research, our work provides new information about the complex links between neurodiversity and mental health in adults — an often overlooked area.
“Further research is now needed to gain a deeper understanding of why ADHD is associated with poor mental health, particularly with regard to the mental processes that may drive anxious and depressive thinking in people with ADHD traits.
“Currently, there is a lack of funding for ADHD research — especially psychology research. This is especially evident when you compare that to the relatively high level of funding for autism.
“As evidence mounts that ADHD is not just a childhood disorder but persists throughout life, we must adjust our research agenda to better understand ADHD in adulthood.”
Commenting on the new findings, Dr Tony Floyd, CEO of the Neurodiversity Foundation ADHD Foundation said: “This study provides clear evidence of mental health comorbidities associated with ADHD in adults increased risk of ADHD. This is a step towards understanding the wider impact of unmanaged and untreated ADHD. We hope this study will lead to commissioning more research in this area. We also hope it will lead to improvements in healthcare delivery Design and availability subject to change.
“The cost impact on the NHS of leaving ADHD untreated, and the need for better training of medical practitioners in primary and secondary care, is now more apparent. There are of course other costs to consider – the health impact of people living with UK citizens with ADHD and their family life, employability and financial well-being. These costs are often hidden but can be considerable.
“This University of Bath research will add to the growing national debate and business case for a national review of health services for ADHD across a person’s lifetime.”
Hargitay, LD, Wait. (2023) ADHD traits are more important predictors of internalizing problems than autistic traits. Scientific Reports. doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-26350-4.