Women with ADHD deserve better

Last year, I went to the emergency department at Grand River Hospital for mental health supports, because I had nowhere else to go. I had asked for help multiple times, but every doctor I saw, including four psychiatrists, failed to provide me with the proper diagnosis and treatment for symptoms related to ADHD.

I’ve learned this is a common experience for neurodivergent women. Until 2003, gender bias permeated all research on what is now commonly called attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. This gender bias persists, and outdated diagnostic criteria make it more difficult for girls and women to receive proper treatment. A 2021 Centre for ADHD Awareness, Canada (CADDAC) survey of Canadian women found that 46 per cent were misdiagnosed with another disorder prior to being diagnosed with ADHD.

Our medical system has not caught up with the research done over the last 20 years. Instead, boys continue to be three to four times more likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis. This is an obvious gender gap — where science has allowed systemic discrimination to persist by excluding women and girls from research.

This systemic discrimination is one reason I was not diagnosed earlier. I saw various doctors for years with symptoms now diagnosed as being related to ADHD. Nothing I was told to do worked, and my anxiety got worse in adulthood. Two years of pandemic sent me into a tailspin, and nothing I tried seemed to prevent chaos from engulfing my life.

In 2021, I realized issues I had been struggling with silently had a name. I sought a diagnosis through my primary care provider, but the psychiatrists I was referred to put up barriers. They told me it was impossible to diagnose without looking at report cards from before the age of 12.

I tried to advocate with my primary care provider for a referral to someone who understands undiagnosed ADHD in women. Instead of support, I was derostered as a patient for advocating for the care I needed. It was a devastating result at a time I needed empathy.

I found a new family doctor last summer, but this change led me to being prescribed the wrong antidepressant. Unable to function, I landed in the Emergency department. I had nowhere else to go.

But I am resilient. Since then, I have paid thousands of dollars out of pocket for a diagnosis and psychiatric services through a private clinic. This is on top of thousands in therapy since 2020. I am finally getting the support I so desperately need, but in a two-tiered mental health system, this comes at a cost.

I share my story because women with undiagnosed ADHD deserve better. I have struggled unnecessarily due to lack of knowledge and implicit biases built into our health-care system. The consequences of failing to properly support women and girls with ADHD is deadly: untreated ADHD can reduce life expectancy by up to 22 years. We must work to fill knowledge gaps; our lives depend on it.

This article appeared in the Cambridge Times on March 15th.