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Sexism in the diagnosis of ADHD

Written by Shala Emmanuel - member of the Street Law Project

When it comes to healthcare, many expect the best and equal treatment, regardless of their individual circumstances. However, this is not the case; in many countries people have to pay for healthcare, which makes it harder for those with financial difficulties to access. On the other hand, many may not receive equal treatment due to racism, sexism, fatphobia, and other unconscious biases! This can be seriously damaging to an individual’s life, as many are not given the appropriate diagnosis or treatment needed to help them.

In this blog, I will be focusing on sexism in the diagnosis of ADHD, and how women are negatively impacted due to the discrimination. I hope to bring awareness to this topic, and also encourage everyone to research more into how minorities in society may struggle to receive the best and equal treatment in the healthcare industry.

What is ADHD? Where is sexism within the diagnosis of ADHD?

ADHD (Attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder) is a condition that affects people’s behaviours. Studies conducted by the CDC over the years show women are less likely to be treated and diagnosed for ADHD, compared to men. The main reason for this is because of sexism in the diagnosis of ADHD, or more specifically the believed symptoms of ADHD! The commonly known symptoms of ADHD, listed in the ICD-11/DSM-5, include inattentiveness, (e.g., difficulty concentrating), hyperactivity, impulsivity, etc. Yet, research shows symptoms typically seen within females are quite different to the commonly seen symptoms. Girls and women with ADHD frequently show symptoms of low self-esteem, inattentiveness (often seen as being lazy or forgetful), anxiety (perceived as being ‘shy’), intellectual impairment, procrastination, and verbal aggression. To summarise, while male symptoms are seen to be more hyperactive and disruptive, the symptoms shown by girls are more inattentive. It is problematic that medical researchers did not do enough to figure out if there were different symptoms between both genders in the past, however, I believe it is worse that the symptoms girls with ADHD present are seen as “normal”, making it harder for females to be diagnosed with ADHD.

This is because historically, girls and women were expected to be quiet and reserved so they could portray themselves as innocent, thus inattentiveness is not seen as abnormal behaviour in females. Though in the present day this is less seen as a stereotype, teachers and other authority figures do not refer a young girl to be checked for ADHD because unconsciously we still believe it is normal for females to be quieter. On the other hand, young girls who show inattentiveness by being forgetful or heavily daydreaming, may be more criticised by teachers than boys due to the popular societal phrase “boys will be boys”, further conveying the sexism in ADHD diagnosis. This is only a small section of the sexism within the diagnosis of ADHD, yet it has a big part in the negative effects women face due to not being diagnosed with ADHD. Moreover, it shows how the patriarchal society in the past still affects women in the modern world.

So, what are some of the negative effects women face?

Regardless of gender, all ADHD patients will receive the negative effect of developing depression, anxiety, OCD, or other mental illnesses, if they are diagnosed late. Despite this being a common negative effect of late diagnosis, women are still affected in specific ways men are not when diagnosed late. Untreated ADHD in women and girls increases the risk of postpartum depression, low self-esteem, sleeping problems (e.g., insomnia), developing eating disorders, hospitalisation for mental health problems, hormonal fluctuations during the menstrual cycle and menopause, greater risk of unplanned pregnancy, and more chances of masking their symptoms to avoid bullying/social isolation. Outside of negative health effects, untreated ADHD within women can also increase the risk of failing education, resulting in reduced employability.

In conclusion, diagnosis of ADHD at the appropriate age is incredibly important for the development of a child, and their future! Angela Barnes, a comedian, stated that “being diagnosed with ADHD made me realise that having ADHD wasn’t the problem - it was not knowing I had ADHD that was the problem.” If we can reflect on the sexism within the healthcare industry, as well as other forms of discrimination, we can resolve this issue by making sure more women are correctly diagnosed for ADHD and can start treatment from a young age!

Sexism is only a fraction of the discrimination within the healthcare industry, yet it destroys so many individual lives. As a woman of colour, I would like to focus on reducing the discrimination many minorities face in society by starting to highlight areas of society rarely spoken about, starting with the healthcare industry! If you need support for ADHD or would like to find out how you can support those around you with ADHD, I suggest you look at AADD-UK, a charity specifically for adults with ADHD! Their website (https://aadduk.org/) has a lot of information on how you can live with ADHD, support someone with ADHD, and also lists many other ADHD support groups in the UK.

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