ADHD Symptoms Unmasked by the Pandemic: Diagnoses Spike Among Adults, Children
Among ADDitude readers, 26% of adults and children have received a formal ADHD diagnosis during the pandemic. Nearly 22% of adults and 17% of children have started taking ADHD medication for the first time, and many more have modified, added, and switched treatments in the last year. Learn what triggered this surge in diagnoses and how the pandemic has brought both clarity and crisis.
March 31, 2021
When the external scaffolding of school, work, and social routines collapsed last March, two things happened:
- Parents gained a front-row seat to their kids’ attentional and educational struggles during remote school
- Adults’ own coping mechanisms and systems broke down, revealing core problems with motivation, memory, and organization.
Suddenly, the masks used to obscure complicated, lifelong symptoms were ripped off, and we were left staring straight into the eyes of ADHD.
Anecdotally, we’ve heard this story from hundreds of readers over the last year. But in the latest of 13 pandemic check-in surveys fielded by ADDitude, the striking number of new diagnoses was quantified: Of 2,365 adult survey respondents, 26.5% said they had received a formal ADHD diagnosis within the last year. Another 10% said they were diagnosed with another comorbid condition. And up to 11% said they suspected and/or were currently pursuing an evaluation.
“Staying at home much more highlighted the ways I’m struggling, which prompted my therapist to recommend an ADHD evaluation,” wrote one young adult in New York.
This noteworthy statistic — that one-quarter of adult ADDitude readers are newly diagnosed — is matched by the survey responses from 1,538 caregivers — nearly 26% of whom reported that their child had been formally diagnosed with ADHD in the last year. Another 15% of children have been diagnosed with a coexisting condition since the pandemic began, and up to 14% are experiencing symptom changes and/or pursuing an evaluation now.
“My 13-year-old child is extremely out of sorts with virtual online school,” wrote the parent of an 8th grade student in Canada who has adjusted her ADHD treatment plan during the pandemic. “We did not realize how much the routine of getting on the bus, going class to class, and daily socialization with peers and teachers was helping her ADHD.”
Triggers for New ADHD Diagnoses in Adults
Nearly three-quarters of newly diagnosed adults said fallout from the pandemic prompted them to pursue an ADHD evaluation. The most common contributing factors were:
- Working from home without external motivators for focus, organization, and productivity — plus new and different sources of distraction
- Stress and anxiety related to the pandemic, lockdown measures, employment, politics, etc.
- Unending time at home with family members living with ADHD, seeing symptom similarities in a new light
- More time on social media platforms like TikTok and Twitter, and their #ADHD channels
Also, 74% of adult survey respondents said they have experienced some major life change — such as starting a new job, losing a loved one, moving, enrolling in a new degree or certification program, or ending/starting a relationship — during the pandemic.
“After watching several people on TikTok talking about adult ADHD, I was like ‘Holy crap, it’s not just me; this explains so much,’” wrote one mother of three in Michigan. “I realized that my doctor was wrong, and I didn’t just ‘grow out of’ my ADHD. Now I need to get re-evaluated and see what can be done to help.”
“Working from home eliminated my coping strategies,” wrote a newly diagnosed adult in Kentucky. “I live by myself and have been working from home since March 2020. It is lonely. I was very behind at work and stressed out, even though I was spending more time ‘at the computer.’ It prompted me to talk to my doctor, who referred me for a neuropsych evaluation and eventual diagnosis.”
“Working from home while acting as proctor to my 2nd grader, plus the stress of my wife needing to go into work for a year (she’s had 3 ‘scares’) — it was all too much to keep track of and process,” wrote one father of two young children who was formally diagnosed during the pandemic.
Triggers for New ADHD Diagnoses in Children
Many of the above triggers also prompted caregivers to pursue ADHD evaluations for their children, however several pandemic factors had an outsized impact on kids’ symptoms:
- Dramatically increased screen time, thanks to online learning, canceled activities, and home quarantines
- Emotional dysregulation exacerbated by the frustration, boredom, and stress of pandemic living
- Learning remotely, without the dedicated time and attention of in-person teachers and classmates
- Social isolation and diminished physical outlets
“Being isolated from friends (or lack thereof) and peers at school and a lack of socialization, plus boredom, increased screen time, and increased stress from our home situation caused my daughter to have more anxiety attacks and become more depressed,” wrote the mother of an 8th grader with ADHD in Florida.
“Remote learning gave me an up-close view of my son’s educational process for the first time,” wrote the parent of an 8th grader with ADHD. “His complete inability to manage his time, turn in work on time, and complete his work at all without constant reminders and oversight was shocking to me as a parent. That is why I sought diagnosis and treatment for him.”
“My son’s almost daily meltdowns, tantrums, and fits of rage in the spring of 2020 were what spurred us to get him formally evaluated,” wrote the parent of a child who was formally diagnosed with ADHD late last year.
More than half of respondents said their children experienced some big life change during the pandemic, including losing a loved one, getting a new pet, moving, or gaining a new sibling. In addition, 36% of children continue to engage in fully remote learning; 29% are learning fully in person; and 26% remain on a hybrid learning schedule with at least one weekday at home. The impact of this education upheaval cannot be overstated.
Changes in ADHD Treatment for Adults
With new diagnoses come new and adjusted treatments. Nearly 22% of adult survey respondents said they began taking ADHD medication for the first time during the pandemic — among newly diagnosed adults, this number was 64%. Only 5.5% of adults said they stopped taking medication and only 4.5% decreased dosage. However, 15% of adults said they have increased their dosage and 11% have switched to a new medication in the last year.
“I have been resisting a formal increase to my dosage and instead trying really hard to stick with a regular schedule and supplementing when needed,” wrote one young adult with ADHD and anxiety. “However, after a year of increased focus challenges, I’ll be completely increasing dosage next month.”
“Today, I’m taking my first dose increase in years to see if there’s any significant change,” wrote one young adult who was diagnosed with ADHD as a teenager. “If the benefit is minimal or insignificant, I have to find a new mental health professional for guidance, possibly a medication change, and seek a further diagnosis of comorbid conditions since I can barely function these days.”
Overall, 56% of adults reported changes in their treatment team during the pandemic with nearly a quarter using telehealth appointments for the first time. Among newly diagnosed adults, 57% began seeing an ADHD professional for the first time and 9% of all adults added a new specialist to their team. Others report frustrations and less-than-deal care due to job loss, insurance complications, and/or a paucity of ADHD specialists nearby.
“I searched and searched for a professional who specializes in treating adult ADHD and was unable to find anyone in or out of network with insurance,” reported one young professional in California. “I am still interested in seeing a specialist.”
One-third of adult respondents also reported experimenting with natural treatments for ADHD in the last year. For 24% of newly diagnosed adults, this meant starting non-medication ADHD treatments for the first time.
“Once diagnosed, I started taking fish oil and more vitamin supplements that I learned supported ADHD health,” wrote one mother diagnosed with ADHD at age 47 in Washington. “I also began taking ADHD medication for the first time.”
“My therapy time is now used for ADHD management,” wrote a mother of two in Mississippi who was formally diagnosed with ADHD in the last year. “I have added omega-3 vitamins along with my medications. Just this past month, I have added regular and routine exercise, which I had stopped during the pandemic. I have added bullet journaling as a tool to help also.”
Changes in ADHD Treatment for Children
The percentage of children brand new to ADHD medication — at 17% — was lower than the 22% of adults who reported taking medication for the first time in the last year. Just over half of newly diagnosed children began taking medication compared to 64% of newly diagnosed adults. This finding of relatively higher medication resistance among caregivers than adults is consistent with prior research. However, a higher percentage of children (21% vs. 15% of adults) have increased their dosage in the last year. And more children (16%) than adults (11%) have switched to a new medication during the pandemic. In addition, 17% of caregivers reported some other kind of recent medication adjustment or change.
“About 6 weeks ago, I started a combination stimulant and non-stimulant treatment,” wrote the mother of a 1st grade student with ADHD in New York. “His sleep has been the main issue, leading to more behavior problems when he gets less, so we’re hoping he’s on his way to a lot more success.”
“Because our child is home for partial online learning and his school day is shorter, we switched from Concerta XR to generic short-acting Ritalin as we can administer it without the school nurse,” wrote the mother of two teens in Washington. “We’ve seen huge improvement! He started high school and his grades went from C- to Bs and As. His focus is much better on the short-acting dose. Supervised learning at home — in spurts of two hours — has changed his academic performance completely! Yeah!”
To steer these treatment changes, 59% of children have altered their treatment team in some way during the last year. Nearly 28% began using telehealth, 19% added a new specialist to their team, and nearly 15% began seeing a professional to treat their ADHD for the first time. Another 11% have switched to a new professional for one reason or another.
“My teens began seeing therapists and both joined support groups for teens with ADHD and anxiety,” said the parent of 7th and 10th grade students in California. “Distance learning was rough and doing hybrid school and being at home for so long caused isolation, depression, and more anxiety.”
As with adults, only a third of children have made natural treatment changes during the pandemic. Roughly 12% began a non-medication therapy for the first time and 11% said they switched or added natural treatments.
“My son started taking fish oil, plus magnesium and melatonin at night,” wrote the mother of a kindergarten student in Texas. “It used to take him up to 2 hours to fall sleep. I also have him taking Zoom meditation and mindfulness classes (1-on-1) with a teacher.”
“She went from obese to ideal weight thanks to exercise and dietary changes starting with last spring’s move to remote learning,” wrote the mother of a teen with anxiety in Ohio. “She is currently getting straight As after inconsistent performance in school for years. She has been accepted to her first-choice college. This has, surprisingly, turned out to be her best year ever.”
Rules for Life with ADHD: Next Steps
- Research: Most Popular ADHD Treatments Among ADDitude Readers
- Read: Results from All 13 of ADDitude’s Pandemic Surveys
- Understand: ADHD Medication Changes During the Pandemic
THIS ARTICLE IS PART OF ADDITUDE’S FREE PANDEMIC COVERAGE
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Updated on March 31, 2021