Struggling for a diagnosis: The lack of information on ADHD in females


Cory Satterfield

Senior Ava Satterfield, while attempting to receive a diagnosis, has experienced difficulties due to widespread unfamiliarity with ADHD in females.

By Anna Thorne, Pleasant Valley High School - IA

Forgetfulness, inability to focus and lack of organization are qualities that surround the minds of females with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But often these characteristics go unnoticed or are dismissed as unimportant.

Countless females go years without a diagnosis for ADHD. This often causes distress and confusion as they struggle to figure out what is causing them to feel the way they do. In some instances, the ways ADHD presents itself can cause incorrect diagnoses, furthering confusion.

Females may be diagnosed with anxiety because their inability to stay organized causes them to feel anxious about the work piling up day after day. An incorrect diagnosis of depression is many times the result of internalized impulsive or intrusive thoughts.

Going through each day feeling misunderstood or silenced can be disheartening and debilitating. 

Females often go undiagnosed on many occasions due to their symptoms being written off as a feeling or trait, such as a female being described as forgetful or talkative. In reality, these characteristics are a direct result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. 

Neurotransmitters are messengers, allowing for information to be sent throughout the brain. They instruct the body to perform specific actions and help to signal certain responses. In the brain of someone who has ADHD, the neurotransmitters do not work properly, creating a disconnect in the messages being sent. 

Laura Stephens, a licensed independent social worker in the state of Iowa, works for Family Counseling & Psychology Center in Bettendorf. She is very well versed in the studies of the brain regarding a multitude of topics, including ADHD.

“Think of the neurotransmitters as minions, each carrying a piece of a puzzle. To be able to complete the puzzle, they have to get through an obstacle course without getting stuck,” Stephens said. “In the brain of someone with ADHD, there are not enough minions that make it through the course to finish the puzzle, therefore resulting in an incomplete message and creating the qualities known to ADHD.”

The frustration of having an “incomplete puzzle” is a widespread occurrence for people that suffer with ADHD. Differences between males and females begin to appear when examining presentation of symptoms, and there tends to be discrepancies between the two.

The generally understood symptoms of ADHD are those most frequently identified in males: making snap decisions, impulsivity, impatience and mood swings. When an educator or parent looks for signs that a child may have ADHD, there is familiarity around the aspects of impulsivity and inattentiveness.

While society more commonly recognizes the aforementioned symptoms, they are not the characteristics most commonly seen in females. 

This lack of information and research surrounding ADHD causes issues in treatment and diagnosis, in addition to creating a stigma against females who do have ADHD. As a consequence of misinformation, females may dismiss their own feelings or assume their issues are not valid. 

Senior Julia Leach was diagnosed with ADHD in kindergarten, and even though she was fortunate enough to receive treatment at an early age, she still struggles with feeling heard and validated.

“As a child, I felt like an outcast. My elementary school didn’t have proper training on how to deal with kids like me and I was bullied,” Leach explained. “Instead of teaching me how to read, they put me on a yoga ball for my hyperness. It never helped and I was left feeling different than other kids.”

These feelings of being misunderstood are not uncommon for females with ADHD, and are often an ongoing struggle even after a diagnosis. As for Leach, she has had to deal with these feelings all of her life.

When a mental illness or disorder is left undiagnosed, it can cause a person to feel outcast and overwhelmed. Without fully understanding what is happening in their brain, it can become difficult for a person to seek treatment. Senior Ava Satterfield is currently in the process of receiving an ADHD diagnosis and admits to having such feelings. 

“Going about getting a diagnosis definitely hasn’t been super easy. I had to talk to my doctors about it multiple times and it wasn’t until one of my family members got diagnosed that I started to be taken more seriously,” Satterfield explained. “I don’t have the stereotypical hyperactivity component of ADHD, so sometimes I feel like people think that I’m not actually struggling.”

A lack of awareness around mental illnesses or disorders causes an immense amount of stigma and invalidation within the lives of those affected by them. 

The courage it can take for anyone to step forward and admit a need for help involving internal struggles is a heavy load to carry. When considering the high occurrence of misinformation, feeling secure in accepting this can seem to be an impossible task.

Leach has dealt with the repercussions caused by inadequate data on ADHD in females. As she went through childhood and now continues into her adult life, she feels strongly that there is progress to be made.

“Taking steps towards education and awareness surrounding mental health issues is the first step in gaining confidence in being able to listen to peers and their struggles. This will also help to validate them and let them know that they are not delusional for feeling as they do,” Leach explained. “We need to create a safe environment for these conversations to become less stigmatized.”

The chemical imbalance caused by ADHD can eat away at self confidence, surface feelings of inadequacy and decrease willingness to speak up. For females, it can feel even more daunting when it feels as though they are shooting in the dark.

Satterfield and Leach are just two of many females who have faced and continue to face the lack of clarity resulting from insufficient reports on ADHD in females. Although there have been improvements in research and awareness, researchers are still working to create a safe environment where females can communicate and feel understood.

Adjustments within societal standards are common in the ever-changing 21st century, and mental health has been included in these developments. In such a robust and affluent society, prosperity and recognition for those feeling silenced are not far from reach. 

This story was originally published on Spartan Shield on April 6, 2021.