Expert panelists call for more research on ADHD in women, girls

Experts called for more research focused on ADHD in girls and women in a panel in New York City last Thursday.

The National Institutes of Health, the largest public funder of biomedical research in the world, only funded one study in 2023 focused on ADHD and women, Julia Schechter, co-director of the Duke Center for Girls & Women with ADHD and assistant professor in the Duke Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Services, said on the panel.

Such low numbers are unacceptable, she emphasized, adding it will then take years before the study’s findings impact the lives of those who need help today.

“We just need some more science to really better understand the experiences of women with ADHD,” Schechter said during that panel, which was moderated by Chelsea Clinton and sponsored by Akili, a prescription digital therapeutics maker whose products include an ADHD treatment.  

Recent data suggest that ADHD diagnoses have risen dramatically among women. These rates nearly doubled for certain age groups from 2020 to 2022. But experts are not sure about what's causing that, Schechter explained. 

Part of it could be driven by growing awareness, facilitated by social media like TikTok. The condition is a hugely popular topic on the platform, with videos tagged with ADHD reportedly reaching billions of views. One caveat, Schechter noted, is that internet platforms can also breed harmful misinformation. Countless studies chronicle the proliferation of health misinformation on social media as a public health concern.

Another possible explanation for the rise in ADHD diagnoses, Schechter said, could be a major transition event like the COVID-19 pandemic. Symptom severity appears to have been exacerbated by the pandemic, at least in children and young adults.

Living with ADHD can be especially challenging for women, Jacqueline Trumbull, a clinical psychology PhD student at Duke University and co-host of a mental health podcast, explained on the panel. Men are diagnosed with ADHD at higher rates than women, per the CDC. Diagnoses may be missed in girls due to biased diagnostic criteria toward the male presentation of the condition.

Missed diagnoses can lead girls to attribute their behaviors to personal failures, putting them at higher risk of low self-esteem and even self-harm, Trumbull added. At Duke, for instance, Trumbull is studying how emotion dysregulation impacts interpersonal relationships and the role of emotions like shame in personality disorders. 

The Duke Center for Girls & Women with ADHD was founded in 2021 and claims to be one of the country’s only programs dedicated specifically to advancing knowledge of the topic. The center, part of the Duke ADHD Program, aims to be a centralized hub of reliable resources for women with ADHD.

Next month, the center will be launching a free, virtual group for pregnant and postpartum moms with ADHD in partnership with Postpartum Support International (PSI) and NC Matters, according to Schechter. PSI is a nonprofit with a help line and referral network to link callers to mental health help, while NC Matters is a free resource for providers caring for pregnant and postpartum patients in North Carolina who are struggling with mental health.

Pregnancy and the postpartum period can bring up unique challenges for those with ADHD. The online group will be aimed at helping them connect with others, talk about their experiences, learn about helpful tools and resources and support each other. The group will be led by PSI-trained support group leaders with lived or professional experience. 

The literature and data backs medications and behavioral therapy as the most effective frontline interventions for ADHD, Schechter told Fierce Healthcare in an interview after the panel. As of now, there isn’t data to suggest those interventions work differently in men and women.

“There’s certainly a need to explore, particularly, does medication effectiveness potentially change related to hormones. We just don’t know that yet, in terms of science,” Schechter said in the interview.

At the same time, Schechter is excited by how the landscape of interventions might be expanding with innovations like digital therapeutics. But more research is needed overall to better understand how existing interventions can be enhanced for women, Schechter added, and also how to potentially create new ones.

RELATED: Akili's therapeutic video game improves ADHD symptoms in 83% of adults: study