Why is ADHD more prevalent than ever, yet undiagnosed in many?

By Lexi Phillips

ADHD: “A brain disorder marked by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development.” (Source: National Institute of Mental Health) 6.4 million children in the US have been diagnosed with ADHD, according to Healthline, but many don’t understand what exactly having attention deficit/hyperactive disorder entails. While ADHD doesn’t discriminate in terms of who experiences it, our own perception of the disorder can affect diagnosis rates—even though these rates have seen notable growth in the past 20 years.

The ADHD Association

The stereotypical vision of ADHD is simple: a child bouncing off the walls, energy boundless and attention sporadic; a friend who stops mid-sentence to point out a shiny object. This idea is often portrayed in the media and has shaped our view of ADHD, but it is not necessarily an accurate representation of what, according to the Center for Disease Control, over six million children in America experience.

Gender Disparity

Elizabeth Bailey, a senior theatre production and design major at CWU with ADHD, says that this portrayal can even be harmful. “It’s not the whole picture. People who have ADHD can sit really calmly in class and look like they’re focused and they’re not; they’re nowhere present,” she says. “So then, because they don’t have that hyperactivity, you start to devalue their diagnosis.” Because of this, women and girls are less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD.

“Females … tend to suffer more of the inattentive symptoms versus the hyperactive,” says Dr. Heath Marrs, a professor of psychology and director of the school psychology program at CWU. “In kids, if you just have the inattentive symptoms, you’re not going to get noticed as much.”

In an article titled, “The Hidden Struggles of a Woman with ADHD” for Healthline, Elaine Atwell wrote,

“This means people frequently write our inattention off as a character flaw, rather than a treatable condition.”

The same is true for Maria Sanders, an associate professor and director of CWU’s film program. Upon diagnosis, which didn’t happen until her 30s, Sanders says she felt “a lot of relief because when I looked at the difficulties I was having, I basically blamed it on being a personal failure.” She thought, “‘I’m lazy. I’m disorganized. I should be better at X, Y or Z,’ without realizing that my brain functions in a certain way and that might not be my fault.”