Health, Food & Nutrition

Generation AnXiety: Findings on ADHD & the Mental Health Crisis

The mental health crisis is particularly acute for adolescent females with ADHD, who report abnormally high levels of anxiety (72%) and depression (44%).

Thoughtful girl sitting on sill embracing knees looking at window, sad depressed teenager spending time alone at home, young upset pensive woman feeling lonely or frustrated thinking about problems
Thoughtful girl sitting on sill embracing knees looking at window, sad depressed teenager spending time alone at home, young upset pensive woman feeling lonely or frustrated thinking about problems

October 7, 2022

Mood swings. Sleep disturbances. Deteriorating relationships. Worsening grades. Total lack of interest in recreational activities. These are among the troubling behaviors observed by more than half of caregivers since the start of the pandemic, according to a new ADDitude survey on the mental health of youth with ADHD.

Our 1,187 survey responses mirror reports by the U.S. Surgeon General with one important caveat: The mental health crisis plaguing today’s youth appears even more severe for adolescents with ADHD.

The mother of a 14-year-old in Michigan put it this way: “My daughter has developed social anxiety and sometimes has difficulty going to school or to stores where other teens might be present. She is overly obsessed with her looks, so much so that she covers our mirrors. She went from an honor roll student to Ds and Es.”

[ADDitude Special Project: Mental Health Out Loud]

Many high school students, as we now know, weren’t doing well before the pandemic: One in three reported a persistent feeling of sadness or hopelessness between 2009 and 2019, according to U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. And one in five children aged 3 to 17 reportedly had a mental, emotional, developmental, or behavior disorder during that time period.

But in the last two to three years, mental health challenges grew even more troublesome for high school students with ADHD, according to the caregivers who responded to the ADDitude survey: An astounding 67% of teens have now been diagnosed with anxiety and 46% with depression. Among children ages 3 to 17 with ADHD, the survey also revealed above-average levels of oppositional defiant disorder (11%), sleep disorders (6.75%), and eating disorders (5.32%), not to mention the learning differences that impact more than one in five students with ADHD.

The Social Media Effect

Less than 6% of parents surveyed said their adolescents with ADHD have “very good” mental health today. On a 4-point scale, this group’s average mental health rating was 2.27.

The most alarming signs of a mental health crisis revealed by the survey data involved adolescent girls with ADHD who use social media. The rate of anxiety among this group is a startling 75%, and the rate of depression is 54%, according to the survey. More than 14% have a sleep disorder, and nearly 12% report an eating disorder—more than three times the national average for neurotypical women. Though the survey cannot demonstrate causality with social media use, it does reveal that this demographic has the most severe mental health challenges.

The most “pervasive and troubling” emotions impacting all adolescents with ADHD today include anxiousness (66%), irritability (60%), apathy (59%), withdrawal (47%), and anger or aggression (45%).

[Free Resource: Too Much Screen Time? How to Regulate Your Teen’s Devices]

Among adolescent girls with ADHD, the most common sources of anxiety were school (76%); COVID-19 (54%); finances (31%); gun violence in schools and social media use (28% each). Among teens with ADHD who are not cisgender, 38% report feeling anxiety over political violence.

“Sometimes my son goes through acute depression,” said a caregiver of a transgender adolescent with ADHD, anxiety, and depression. “When this happens, the entire world goes dark for him, and we just do what we can to get him through.”

If your child is experiencing troubling symptoms of anxiety, depression, or self-harm, call or text 9-8-8 to access mental health services in the United States.

How to Protect Your Teen’s Mental Health

Talk to your child’s pediatrician if you are concerned about your child’s mental health. Learn about the signs of anxiety and depression (and other signs of distress) and ask your child’s doctor if screenings for these conditions are warranted. If your child has been diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and/or other conditions, ensure that they are adhering to treatment plans.

1. Model emotional regulation at home.

Practice self-care and prioritize your well being. Even if it doesn’t seem like it, your behaviors serve as a guide for your teen.  Keeping calm will help your teen do the same – or at least prevent emotions from escalating. Make sure you aren’t enabling your child’s anxiety.

2. Try to minimize exposure to negative news.

Avoiding discussing potentially stressful subjects – finances, marital problems, etc. – around your child, as these topics could undermine your child’s sense of safety and stability. Limit your family’s exposure to distressing news events. Learn more about navigating conversations around gun violence and school shootings here.

3. Encourage healthy social media use.

Have ongoing conversations about online experiences, and watch for warning signs of problematic Internet use. Listen to our conversation with Linda Charmaraman, Ph.D., on social media and youth mental health for more strategies. If unhealthy social comparison over social media is a problem for your teen, read this article.

4. Encourage healthy habits.

Consistency and routine ground us, as do sufficient sleep, nutritious meals, and physical activity. Social connection is also vital for teens. Take steps to ensure that your child’s life has all these elements.

5. Prioritize a good relationship with your child above all else.

A stable, supportive environment does wonders for fostering resiliency and confidence. Bond with your child over things they enjoy (don’t come in with an agenda), and really listen to your child’s concerns without judgment. (Check your immediate reactions and unsolicited advice at the door.)

ADHD & the Mental Health Crisis: Next Steps

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