ADHD News & Research

Almost Half of Women with ADHD Have Considered Suicide, A New Study Finds

Young women with ADHD are much more likely to have serious mental and physical health problems than their neurotypical peers, according to new research from Canada.

August 18, 2016

In a sobering new study, a team at the University of Toronto reports that women with ADHD were much more likely to have mental health issues than their neurotypical peers — particularly anxiety, depression, drug abuse, and suicidal thoughts.

The study, which relied on data from the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey, identified nearly 4,000 subjects who were considered to be a cross-section of Canadian women between the ages of 20 and 39. Of those, only 107 identified themselves as having ADHD — a small number that made the physical and mental health problems they faced in comparison to their peers disproportionally dramatic.

Physically, more than one in four (28 percent) said they were at least partially debilitated by chronic pain; only 9 percent of those without ADHD could say the same. Insomnia affected nearly half the women with ADHD — compared to just 12 percent of the neurotypical subjects — and over 40 percent said they smoked. Nationally, only 15 percent of Canadians smoke — though the percentage is slightly higher for the 20 to 39 age group.

But it was the prevalence of mental illness among the ADHD group that gave the researchers the most pause. A full 46 percent said that they had seriously considered suicide at some point in their lives — a number that Esme Fuller-Thomson, the lead author on the study, called “disturbingly high” — and 39 percent said they had struggled with substance abuse. Thirty-six percent had been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder alongside their ADHD, and 31 percent had been diagnosed with major depression.

Though awareness is expanding and times are changing, it’s true that for many women who were diagnosed with ADHD, they were lucky to be noticed at all. Many more languish under the radar — in some cases because the inattentive symptoms that women are more prone to can be missed by teachers and parents who are on the lookout for the more stereotypical hyperactivity and impulsivity; other times, it’s because the women were misdiagnosed or diagnosed only with depression.

Missed or mis- diagnoses may be part of the problem here, the researchers write, but since the women in the study reported being diagnosed, they can’t tell the whole story. “Unfortunately, our study does not provide insight into why women with ADHD are so vulnerable,” said Fuller-Thomson. But, she added, since the study also found that approximately one in three women with ADHD struggled to make ends meet, “it is possible that some of the mental health problems may be caused by and/or contributing to financial stress.”

One thing is certain, though. “In light of these problems, it is important that primary health care providers are particularly vigilant in monitoring and treating their female patients with ADHD,” said the study’s co-author Senyo Agbeyaka, a graduate student at the University of Toronto.

The study was published July 20 in the journal Child: Care, Health, and Development.