Individuals with high levels of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms are more likely to feel anxiety and sadness than adults with high levels of autistic features, according to new research done by psychologists at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom. This is the first study to indicate that ADHD predicts poor mental health outcomes in adulthood more than other neurodevelopmental diseases such as autism. There has previously been a scarcity of knowledge on the impacts of ADHD on poor mental health, with significantly more study concentrating on the impact of autism on despair, anxiety, and quality of life.
As a result, persons with ADHD frequently struggle to obtain the therapeutic care they require to manage their symptoms. The authors of the study hope that their results will spark fresh research into ADHD and, as a result, improve the mental health outcomes for people with the illness. ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder marked by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. The illness is believed to affect between 3% and 9% of the population.
On Blue Monday (January 16), the third Monday of the month, which some consider to be the bleakest day of the year, lead researcher Luca Hargitai stated: “Autism has long been related to anxiety and despair, but ADHD has received less attention. “Researchers have also struggled to statistically separate the importance of ADHD and autism for mental health outcomes because of how frequently they occur together,” he said.
Ms Hargitai, a PhD Researcher at Bath, added, “Our aim was to precisely measure how strongly ADHD personality traits were linked to poor mental health while statistically accounting for autistic traits.”
The new study, conducted in collaboration with the Universities of Bath, Bristol, and Cardiff, as well as King’s College London, was published this week in the prominent journal Scientific Reports. It comes in the same month that two British TV stars, Johnny Vegas and Sue Perkins, revealed their recent ADHD diagnosis.
“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,” said Ms Hargitai, adding, “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.”
Overly active, as though driven by a motor
A large, nationally representative sample of people from the UK population was employed in the study. All participants filled out gold standard questionnaires, one on autistic features and the other on ADHD traits, responding to lines like “I usually get intensely engaged in one thing” and “How often do you feel too active and prompted to perform motor-driven activities like you?”
The researchers discovered that ADHD qualities were highly predictive of the intensity of anxiety and depression symptoms: the more ADHD traits a person had, the more likely he or she is to have severe mental health symptoms. The study authors found that having an ADHD personality was more closely associated to anxiety and depression than autistic features using unique analytical methodologies.
These findings were repeated with a 100%’reproducibility rate’ in computer simulations. This demonstrated with high certainty that ADHD features are virtually likely associated with more severe anxiety and depression symptoms in adults than autism traits.
Shifting the focus of research and clinical practice
Ms Hargitai said, “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.”
According to Dr Punit Shah, senior author and associate professor of Psychology at Bath, another important aspect of the new study is that it advances the scientific understanding of neurodevelopmental conditions.
“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,” he said.
“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,” he said.
“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,” he elaborated.
“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,” he added.
Dr Tony Floyd, CEO of the ADHD Foundation and The Neurodiversity Foundation, commented on the new findings, saying, “This study provides compelling evidence of the increased risk of mental health comorbidities associated with adult ADHD. This is an important step toward acknowledging the larger consequences of mismanaged and untreated ADHD. We hope that our research will result in additional research being funded in this area. We also hope that it will lead to improvements in the design and delivery of health care services.
“The cost implications to the NHS of leaving ADHD untreated, and the need to better train health practitioners in both primary and secondary care, are now more apparent. And of course, there are other costs too that need to be considered – to the health of UK citizens with ADHD and to their family life, employability and economic well-being. These costs are often hidden but they are considerable,” he said.
“This research from Bath University will add to the growing national debate and the business case for a national review of health services for ADHD across a person’s lifespan,” he added.