We found that people with more ADHD personality traits were more likely to have common mental health issues like depression and anxiety than people with more autistic traits. This is the first study, as far as we know, that shows people with ADHD are more likely to have mental health problems than autistic people.
To conduct our study, we asked over 500 adults in the UK to complete questionnaires measuring autistic and ADHD characteristics. We also asked them to complete standard questionnaires for depression and anxiety.
This is known as a “trait approach” to autism and ADHD. It involves looking at people’s individual characteristics rather than their diagnoses. This allows us to indirectly understand how much different conditions overlap.
We then used statistical tests to measure the strength of the relationship between autistic traits and mental health issues and compared this to the link between ADHD traits and mental health issues.
Our results showed that both ADHD and autistic personality traits can predict the severity of a person’s anxiety and depression symptoms. But what was new was that people were more likely to experience these symptoms if they had a lot of ADHD traits compared to those who had a lot of autism traits. We found that the link between ADHD and mental health issues was about three times stronger than the link between mental health issues and autism.
These results were replicated in computer simulations with a “reproducibility rate” of 100%. In other words, ADHD traits are almost certainly more linked to poor mental health than autistic traits in the UK population.
Our study highlights a clear link between ADHD and common mental health issues in adults. The next step is to examine the factors that may be driving this relationship. Scientists know that genes linked to ADHD are also linked to certain mental health conditions, such as depression. People with ADHD are also more likely to experience stressful life events, which can lead to mental health difficulties.
It will now be important to look at how environmental and social cognitive factors (such as how well people understand others) might influence the mental health of this group. This research is crucial to identifying people who are most at risk for mental health problems. Knowing what signs to look for can allow doctors to intervene early, before people become severely anxious or depressed.
But to better understand the links between ADHD and mental health and what supportive approaches might be most effective for this group, more funds need to be invested in research. Funding for ADHD research is lacking compared to other conditions such as autism. However, considering that nearly 30% of people with autism also have ADHD, it is clear that increased funding in this area of research could have far-reaching benefits for many people.
If you are autistic or have ADHD and are struggling with your mental health, there are many charities and non-profit organizations that can help you.