Having ADHD in adulthood strongly linked to development of anxiety, depression

BATH, England — Adults living with severe ADHD symptoms are more likely to experience depression and anxiety than those with high levels of autistic traits, according to a new study.

While scientists have linked autism to mental health issues in the past, this is first project ever to conclude that ADHD is actually more predictive of poor mental health outcomes among adults in comparison to other neurodevelopmental conditions. Study authors add that up until this work, there’s been a dearth of information on the effects of ADHD on poor mental health. Consequently, many patients diagnosed with ADHD have struggled to get the mental health support and clinical care they need. The research team from the University of Bath hopes their efforts will help change this troublesome trend.

ADHD, short for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, is a neurodevelopmental condition most often characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

“Scientists have long known that autism is linked to anxiety and depression, but ADHD has been somewhat neglected,” says lead researcher Luca Hargitai in a university release. “Researchers have also struggled to statistically separate the importance of ADHD and autism for mental health outcomes because of how frequently they occur together.”

“Our aim was to precisely measure how strongly ADHD personality traits were linked to poor mental health while statistically accounting for autistic traits.”

More people are disclosing their battle with ADHD

This latest study, a collaborative effort between the Universities of Bath, Bristol, and Cardiff, and King’s College London, happens to come in the same month that two well-known British TV personalities (Johnny Vegas and Sue Perkins) have disclosed recent ADHD diagnoses.

“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,” Hargitai comments. “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.”

Researchers made use of a large, nationally representative sample of adults from the United Kingdom. Each person completed what the team calls “gold standard” questionnaires; one focusing on autistic traits, and another centered on ADHD. Examples of statements in these surveys include: “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?”

Study authors report that ADHD traits were highly predictive of anxiety and depression symptom severity. More specifically, the higher the ADHD trait levels, the more likely a person is to deal with severe mental health symptoms. Next, using a series of innovative analytical techniques, the research team was able to further confirm that exhibiting more of an “ADHD personality” was more robustly linked to anxiety and depression than any autistic traits.

Those results were even replicated using computerized simulations that produced a 100-percent “reproducibility rate,” according to the team. This strongly suggests ADHD traits are almost certainly linked to more severe anxiety and depression symptoms among adults in comparison to traits associated with autism.

“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,” Hargitai notes.

Will health professionals start paying more attention to ADHD?

This research also advances modern science’s understanding of neurodevelopmental conditions in general, according to Dr. Punit Shah, senior study author and associate professor of Psychology at Bath.

“By addressing the shortcomings of previous research, our work provides fresh information about the complex links between neurodiversity and mental health in adults – an area that is often overlooked. 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,” Dr. Shah explains.

“At the moment, funding for ADHD research – particularly psychological research – is lacking. This is especially pronounced when you compare it to the relatively high level of funds directed at autism. As the evidence becomes clear that ADHD isn’t just a childhood condition but persists throughout life, we must adjust our research agendas to better understand ADHD in adulthood.”

The study is published in Scientific Reports.

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