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The Connection Of Adult ADHD And Depression, Harmful Risks

A disproportionate number of adults with ADHD also experience depression. If you suspect you have adult ADHD and depression, visit your doctor. They can help diagnose your symptoms. They can also help you develop a treatment plan that works for you. Read to learn more about the connection between adult ADHD and depression.


By We Level Up FL Treatment Center | Editor Yamilla Francese | Clinically Reviewed By Lauren Barry, LMFT, MCAP, QS, Director of Quality Assurance | Editorial Policy | Research Policy | Last Updated: April 28, 2023

What’s the Connection Between Adult ADHD and Depression?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression can go hand-in-hand. Doctors sometimes call them comorbid or coexisting conditions, meaning you can have both simultaneously. Unfortunately, less than 20% of adults with ADHD have been diagnosed or received mental health treatment, and only about one-quarter of those adults seek help.

ADHD is a brain disorder that makes it hard to focus. Adults with it might have trouble finishing tasks, sitting still, or keeping track of things, appointments, or details. Depression is more than just an occasional case of the blues. You feel deep sadness and despair every day for at least two weeks. It can make working, going to school, or sleeping hard.

Depression is nearly three times more prevalent among adults with ADHD. Moreover, individuals with ADHD and depression experience symptoms for each condition more acutely than what would be present if they only had one condition. Anyone with adult ADHD and depression must ensure that both conditions are appropriately managed, especially for ADHD to be identified and treated — as it can significantly impact how depression manifests. 

Some symptoms of adult ADHD and depression are much alike, making diagnosing and treating those conditions challenging. For instance, trouble with focus is one of the signs of both depression and ADHD. And if you take medicines to help with your ADHD symptoms, they may affect your sleep or eating habits; both of those can be signs of depression, too.

Also, ADHD can lead to depression when people struggle with their symptoms. Adults may have issues at work. That can lead to deep feelings of hopelessness and other signs of depression.

Can ADHD Cause Depression in Adults?

Having ADHD puts you at four times the risk of depression. The risk is even greater for hyperactive/impulsive types, who are also at a higher risk of suicide. The nature of ADHD itself, especially if untreated, can sometimes cause depression. This type of “secondary depression” emerges directly from the chronic frustration and disappointment many individuals with ADHD experience. 

All the struggles that ADHD symptoms can bring, like troubles with school, relationships, work, executive functions, and the demands of everyday life, can lead people to feel often not good about themselves, making them prone to low self-esteem and negative self-concept. Making sure that ADHD is adequately managed and treated, in these cases, can be vital in lifting depression. But by some estimates, 25% of adults with the disorder haven’t gotten appropriate ADHD treatment.

People with ADHD may have trouble managing and expressing strong emotions. People with ADHD have lower dopamine levels in the brain, leading to lower motivation levels. As a result, they may be less likely to take the initiative or to complete tasks, as they may not always be rewarded with the rush of satisfaction one feels upon completing a task.ADHD can cause people to struggle with work, academics, and relationships, which can be highly discouraging. 

They may often feel ashamed or embarrassed about who they are. Being unable to meet expectations—others and one’s own—despite best efforts can lead to persistent failure and low self-esteem. Furthermore, people with ADHD are more likely to have other mental health conditions like bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and learning disabilities. These conditions can add to the difficulties of living with ADHD.

What are the Adult ADHD and Depression Risk Factors?

If you have ADHD, several risk factors affect your chances of developing depression.

Sex

You’re more likely to develop ADHD if you’re male. But researchers from the University of Chicago say you’re more likely to develop depression with ADHD if you’re female. Females with ADHD have a higher risk of becoming depressed than males. [2]

ADHD type

The researchers from the University of Chicago also found that people with predominantly inattentive type ADHD or combined type ADHD are more likely to experience depression than those with the hyperactive-impulsive variety.

Maternal Health History

The mental health status of your mother also affects your chances of developing depression. In an article published in JAMA Psychiatry, scientists reported that women who had depression or serotonin impairment during pregnancy were more likely to give birth to children who were later diagnosed with ADHD, depression, or both. More research is needed. But these results suggest that low serotonin function can affect the brain of a woman’s developing fetus, creating ADHD-like symptoms. [3]

What is the Risk of Suicidal Thoughts for People with Adult ADHD and Depression?

If you were diagnosed with ADHD between the ages of 4 and 6, you might have a higher risk of becoming depressed and having suicidal thoughts later in life. Research published in JAMA PsychiatryTrusted Source reported that girls between 6 and 18 with ADHD are more likely to think about suicide than their peers without ADHD. Those with hyperactive-impulsive type ADHD are more likely to become suicidal than those with other types of the condition. [4]

If you think someone is at immediate risk of self-harm or hurting another person:

  • Call 911 or your local emergency number.
  • Stay with the person until help arrives.
  • Remove any guns, knives, medications, or other things that may cause harm.
  • Listen, but don’t judge, argue, threaten, or yell.

If you think someone is considering suicide, get help from a crisis or suicide prevention hotline.

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Adult ADHD and Depression Statistics

Mental illnesses, such as adult ADHD and depression, are common in the United States. Nearly 52.9 million U.S. adults have a mental illness in 2020. Mental illnesses include many conditions that vary in severity, ranging from mild to moderate to severe. [1]


1 in 5

In 2020, Nearly one in five U.S. adults lived with a mental illness. The most common mental disorders in the US are anxiety, major depression, and bipolar disorder. 

Source: NIMH

8.7 Million

In 2019, the number of visits to physician offices with attention deficit disorder as the primary diagnosis was 8.7 million.

Source: NIMH

9.5%

Approximately 9.5% of American adults, ages 18 and over, will suffer from a depressive illness (major depression, bipolar disorder, or dysthymia) each year.

Source: NIMH


Adult ADHD and Depression Facts Sheet

Adult ADHD and depression are typically treated through psychotherapies, medications, or a combination. For instance, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has proven to be highly effective against depression and other mental illnesses.


Depression Disorder

Depression is a severe medical illness. It’s more than feeling sad or “blue” for a few days. If you are one of the more than 19 million individuals in the United States with depression, the feelings do not go away. They persist and interfere with your everyday life. Symptoms can include:

  • Feeling sad or “empty”.
  • Loss of interest in favorite activities.
  • Overeating, or not wanting to eat at all.
  • Not being able to sleep or sleeping too much.
  • Feeling very tired.
  • Feeling hopeless, irritable, anxious, or guilty.
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems.
  • Thoughts of death or suicide.

There are effective treatments for depression, including antidepressants, talk therapy, or both.

To be diagnosed with depression, your provider will ask about your medical history and symptoms. Your answers can help your provider diagnose depression and determine its severity.

Blood and urine tests may be done to rule out other medical conditions with symptoms similar to depression.

ADHD

Researchers are unsure what causes ADHD, although many studies suggest that genes play a significant role. Like many other disorders, ADHD probably results from a combination of factors. In addition to genetics, researchers are looking at possible environmental factors that might raise the risk of developing ADHD and are studying how brain injuries, nutrition, and social environments might play a role in ADHD.

ADHD is more common in males than females, and females with ADHD are more likely to have inattention symptoms primarily. People with ADHD often have other conditions, such as learning disabilities, anxiety disorder, conduct disorder, depression, and substance use disorder.

For a person to receive a diagnosis of ADHD, the symptoms of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity must be chronic or long-lasting, impair the person’s functioning, and cause the person to fall behind typical development for their age. Stress, sleep disorders, anxiety, depression, and other physical conditions or illnesses can cause similar symptoms to ADHD. Therefore, a thorough evaluation is necessary to determine the cause of the symptoms.


If you think you may benefit from therapies for adult ADHD and depression, you can contact We Level Up FL for treatment resources.
If you think you may benefit from therapies for adult ADHD and depression, you can contact We Level Up FL for treatment resources.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

See your provider if you or someone you know has symptoms of adult ADHD and depression. It is essential to seek help immediately if you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide.

You can also call 911 or the local emergency number or go to the hospital emergency room. DO NOT delay.

If someone you know has attempted suicide, call 911 or the local emergency number immediately. DO NOT leave the person alone, even after you have called for help.

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What are the Symptoms of Adult ADHD Depression?

ADHD is an umbrella term for a wide range of symptoms. There are three main types of the condition:

  • Predominantly Inattentive Type: You might have this type of ADHD if you have trouble paying attention, struggle to organize your thoughts, and get distracted easily.
  • Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Type: You might have this type of ADHD if you frequently feel restless, interrupt or blurt out information, and find it challenging to stay still.
  • Combination Type: If you have a combination of the two types described above, you have combination type ADHD.
Everyone has executive functioning strengths and challenges, which is why some adults can be skilled at some things and not others. But executive functioning challenges can be more severe and impactful for people that have adult ADHD and depression.
Everyone has executive functioning strengths and challenges, which is why some adults can be skilled at some things and not others. But executive functioning challenges can be more severe and impactful for people that have adult ADHD and depression.

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Depression can also cause a variety of symptoms. Common symptoms include:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, emptiness
  • Frequent feelings of anxiety, irritability, restlessness, or frustration
  • Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy
  • Trouble paying attention
  • Changes in your appetite
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Fatigue

Some of the symptoms of depression overlap with the symptoms of ADHD. This can make it hard to tell the two conditions apart. For instance, restlessness and boredom can be symptomatic of ADHD and depression. In some cases, the medications prescribed for ADHD can also produce side effects that mimic depression. Some ADHD medications can cause:

  • Sleep difficulties
  • Loss of appetite
  • Mood swings
  • Fatigue
  • Restlessness

If you suspect you might be depressed, make an appointment with a mental health professional. They can help pinpoint the cause of your symptoms.

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Treating ADHD and Depression in Adults

Treatment for adult ADHD and depression conditions usually involves a combination of medication and meetings with a therapist. How you start may depend on what condition is causing you more trouble. For example, if ADHD is causing stress, treating that first may take away one of the causes of depression.

  • ADHD is often treated with stimulants that boost brain chemicals linked to focus and thinking. They can help with symptoms while you’re at school or work but can also make you less hungry or cause headaches or sleep problems.
  • Some ADHD drugs don’t involve stimulants or have the same side effects. But they may not work as quickly. Your doctor might give you a combination of stimulants and non-stimulant drugs.
  • Your doctor may prescribe antidepressants to treat depression. These can take several weeks to work and may have side effects, including thoughts of suicide.
  • Antidepressants may also help with the symptoms of adult ADHD and depression, either in place of stimulants or as part of a combination of drugs to treat both conditions.

ADHD and depression medication for adults can be more effective when combined with therapies. Psychotherapy can offer ways to manage your symptoms and live a healthy life. A therapist can give you strategies to deal with everyday challenges, such as issues with friends, family, work, or school.

To find the best ADHD medication for adults with depression, your doctor might prescribe a combination of treatments, such as medications, behavioral therapy, and talk therapy. Some antidepressant medications can also help relieve symptoms of ADHD. For instance, your doctor might prescribe imipramine, desipramine, or bupropion. They may also prescribe stimulant medications for ADHD.

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Individuals diagnosed with adult ADHD and depression have higher risks of impulsivity and risk-taking tendencies that can lead some to use drugs or alcohol, leading to dependency and substance abuse. Get help as early as possible before developing other mental disorders.
Individuals diagnosed with adult ADHD and depression have higher risks of impulsivity and risk-taking tendencies that can lead some to use drugs or alcohol, leading to dependency and substance abuse. Get help as early as possible before developing other mental disorders.

In addition to prescribing medication for ADHD, a mental health professional may recommend CBT (cognitive-behavior therapy) for comorbid anxiety. Some stimulant-drug treatments for ADHD may worsen anxiety symptoms in patients with comorbid anxiety disorders.

Behavioral therapy can help you develop coping strategies to manage your symptoms. It may help improve your focus and build your self-esteem. Talk therapy can also relieve symptoms of depression and the stress of managing a chronic health condition. Leading a healthy lifestyle is also essential. For instance, try to get enough sleep, eat a well-balanced diet, and exercise regularly.

A mental health professional should focus on the disorder associated with the most significant impairment. If ADHD is the cause of depression, treating ADHD may reduce depression. If depression is independent of ADHD, a doctor will determine the proper medication.

Whether depression results from ADHD or not doesn’t remove the fact that the individual is still experiencing depression. At the same time, there are some factors medical providers consider when treating both conditions, like how ADHD medications and antidepressants may interact because depression is usually treated as its condition.

Living with the symptoms of adult ADHD and depression can be challenging, but you can take steps to manage both conditions. A mental health professional may prescribe stimulant and antidepressant medications. They may also recommend counseling or other therapies.

We Level Up FL offers an ADHD treatment program at our mental health treatment center in Florida. Here, clients participate in clinical and experiential therapies as part of our comprehensive curriculum. If your loved one is struggling with their depression diagnosis, we can help them understand their disorder and teach them the skills they need to reach their full potential. 

  1. What do severe adult ADHD and depression look like?

    Adults with ADHD may find it challenging to focus and prioritize, leading to missed deadlines and forgotten meetings or social plans. The inability to control impulses can range from impatience in waiting in line or driving in traffic to mood swings and outbursts of anger.

  2. Can ADHD be mistaken for depression?

    Yes. More often than not, when individuals are diagnosed with ADHD, they may complain of feeling anxious, depressed, or sad. Sometimes the complaint indicates a co-existing anxiety disorder or depression, but symptoms of anxiety and unhappiness often arise because of untreated ADD.

  3. What is depression look like for people with ADHD?

    Because adults with ADHD struggle with focusing, organizing tasks, and feeling restless, they might experience sadness, guilt, irritability, low self-confidence, and helplessness. In some cases, these symptoms can signal depression.

  4. Do ADHD medications help with depression?

     It depends. Stimulant medications aren’t used on their own for treating depression. But they are sometimes used as an add-on treatment for depression to boost an antidepressant that’s not working well.

  5. What should be treated first, depression or ADHD?

    If symptoms of ADHD are more impairing, treatment guidelines recommend that medication for this disorder be prescribed first. If symptoms of depression are of more significant concern, these may also need to be addressed. In some cases, antidepressants may be prescribed in addition to the medication used to treat ADHD.

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Sources:

[1] Mental Illness – NIMH/National Institute of Mental Health

[2] Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) – NIMH/National Institute of Mental Health

[3] Magnus W, Nazir S, Anilkumar AC, et al. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. [Updated 2022 Aug 15]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441838/

[4] Núñez-Jaramillo L, Herrera-Solís A, Herrera-Morales WV. ADHD: Reviewing the Causes and Evaluating Solutions. J Pers Med. 2021 Mar 1;11(3):166. DOI: 10.3390/jpm11030166. PMID: 33804365; PMCID: PMC7999417.

[5] Manwell LA, Barbic SP, Roberts K, Durisko Z, Lee C, Ware E, McKenzie K. What is mental health? Evidence towards a new definition from a mixed methods multidisciplinary, international survey. BMJ Open. 2015 Jun 2;5(6):e007079. DOI: 10.1136/bmjopen-2014-007079. PMID: 26038353; PMCID: PMC4458606.

[6] National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health (UK). Common Mental Health Disorders: Identification and Pathways to Care. Leicester (UK): British Psychological Society (UK); 2011. (NICE Clinical Guidelines, No. 123.) 2, COMMON MENTAL HEALTH DISORDERS. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92254/

[7] Krystal JH, State MW. Psychiatric disorders: diagnosis to therapy. Cell. 2014 Mar 27;157(1):201-14. DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2014.02.042. PMID: 24679536; PMCID: PMC4104191.

[8] National Institutes of Health (US); Biological Sciences Curriculum Study. NIH Curriculum Supplement Series [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Institutes of Health (US); 2007. Information about Mental Illness and the Brain. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK20369/

[9] Malla A, Joober R, Garcia A. “Mental illness is like any other medical illness”: a critical examination of the statement and its impact on patient care and society. J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2015 May;40(3):147-50. DOI: 10.1503/jpn.150099. PMID: 25903034; PMCID: PMC4409431.

[10] About Mental Health – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention