Is ADHD Overdiagnosed?

Close-up of boy (12-13) doing homework at desk

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Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is becoming more widely recognized in mainstream culture, thanks to increased education about this neurodevelopmental disorder. This awareness can help many who need support access it.

Yet, its growing prevalence leads many to wonder if ADHD is overdiagnosed. Read on to learn about what ADHD is, how common it is, and if it is actually an overdiagnosed disorder.

What Is ADHD?

Let’s start with the basics and explore what ADHD is. ADHD is a type of neurodevelopmental disorder commonly diagnosed during childhood. However, it isn’t unheard of for an adult to receive a diagnosis.

This disorder typically occurs throughout one’s lifespan, though effective treatment can manage the severity.

ADHD is marked by a persistent pattern of inattention and hyperactivity that is so troublesome, that daily functioning and relationships suffer.

Examples of inattention include:

  • Lack of attention to detail
  • A limited attention span
  • Issues finishing tasks
  • Inability to meet deadlines
  • Struggles with timeliness
  • Consistently losing important items like keys or cell phones
  • Avoiding tasks that require intense and sustained attention, like schoolwork or creating reports

Hyperactivity can present with the following symptoms:

  • Restlessness or jitteriness
  • Struggles in maintaining conversations due to interrupting others
  • Consistently challenged when tasked with sitting still, either in the classroom, workplace, or social settings
  • Unable to enjoy activities quietly

Some may experience both inattention and hyperactivity, while others may struggle with one or the other. A trained mental health professional can screen for ADHD, ruling out other physical or mental illnesses.

ADHD Treatment

Treatment for ADHD includes medication, psychotherapy, and lifestyle support. The recommended medication is a stimulant because these agents can boost levels of essential chemicals like dopamine and norepinephrine in certain areas of the brain. Dopamine is involved in motivation, pleasure, attention, and movement.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a form of talk therapy. It bridges the connections between our thoughts, feelings, and actions and can potentially help with organization, time management, problem solving, social skills, and impulse control. In addition, behavioral therapy that focuses on specific challenging behaviors may be recommended.

Behavioral approaches may also involve accommodations at school or the workplace. Interventions may also involve teachers and parents learning more about ADHD and how to reinforce positive behaviors in the classroom and at home.

Other forms of support include learning more about ADHD and attending support groups.

ADHD Statistics

ADHD may seem increasingly common and the truth is, statistically speaking, ADHD is actually quite common in adolescents and adults.

By one estimate, in the United States, 8.7% of adolescents experience ADHD. About half of adolescents experience ADHD to the extent that it severely impacts their functioning. 

Is ADHD Overdiagnosed?

One recent meta-analysis suggests that ADHD is overdiagnosed both in children and adolescents. The concern with the overdiagnosis of ADHD is the resulting overtreatment, especially since ADHD often requires stimulant medication.

Recent research suggests there are gaps in knowledge regarding the overdiagnosis of ADHD and recommends that professionals educate themselves and ensure they provide a thorough screening process.  

Ensuring You Get the Right Diagnosis

When seeking out mental health support for ADHD symptoms, be aware that there are other disorders that may present with symptoms similar to ADHD. There are several psychiatric disorders that have inattention or impulsivity as part of their symptoms.

For example, borderline personality disorder is a mental illness that presents with impulsive behavior that can look similar to ADHD. It is also possible that ADHD can co-occur with other diagnoses.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.

  2. National Institute of Mental Health. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Statistics.

  3. Kazda L, Bell K, Thomas R, McGeechan K, Sims R, Barratt A. Overdiagnosis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children and adolescents: a systematic scoping review. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(4):e215335. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.5335

  4. Ditrich I, Philipsen A, Matthies S. Borderline personality disorder (Bpd) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (Adhd) revisited – a review-update on common grounds and subtle distinctions. Borderline Pers. Disord. Emot. Dysregulation. 2021;8(1):22. Doi: 10.1186/s40479-021-00162-w

By Julia Childs Heyl, MSW
Julia Childs Heyl, MSW, is a clinical social worker and writer. As a writer, she focuses on mental health disparities and uses critical race theory as her preferred theoretical framework. In her clinical work, she specializes in treating people of color experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma through depth therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) trauma therapy.