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15 min read

ADHD Misdiagnosed? Can ADHD Be Mistaken for Depression?

Written by Klarity Editorial Team

Published: Sep 2, 2022

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Zoe Russell

Table of contents

If you found yourself on this page, chances are you struggle with symptoms of ADHD and depression. As you might be aware, there are many overlapping symptoms between ADHD and depression. This fact can muddy the waters when receiving a proper ADHD or depression diagnosis.

In this post, we’ll explore why ADHD and depression share so many symptoms and are likely to co-occur in the same patient. We’ll cover—

  • Why depression misdiagnosis is so common
  • The role of norepinephrine in depression and ADHD
  • How to tell depression and ADHD apart
  • How untreated ADHD can cause depression
  • How to tell if you have ADHD or depression

If you are trying to get to the bottom of your mental health issues and have been scouring WebMD to determine whether your symptoms indicate depression or ADHD, then you should stop!

Only board-certified mental health professionals can diagnose mental illnesses. We all want answers fast—especially when the questions are related to our mental health. That’s why Klarity helps you receive a diagnosis and treatment (if applicable) in 48 hours or less.

When you take our brief, 2-min self-assessment, we’ll connect you with a board-certified mental health provider who can diagnose and prescribe depression and ADHD treatment online if necessary. 

Noticing symptoms and suspect you have a mental health condition? Find fast, affordable care from a provider on Klarity today.

Why is Depression Misdiagnosis So Common?

Unfortunately, mental health misdiagnosis is quite common, especially regarding depression symptoms. For major depressive disorder, one study put the prevalence of misdiagnosis at 65.9%. If you’ve been diagnosed with depression and the suggested treatments haven’t reduced your symptoms, you may have been misdiagnosed.

Depression misdiagnosis is common for two main reasons. First, overlapping symptoms among related mental health disorders make it difficult to pinpoint a precise diagnosis. And second, when making a diagnosis, many health professionals fail to screen patients properly.

According to the study above, a quarter of psychiatrists and half of primary care doctors don’t use the DSM-V’s criteria for depression when diagnosing depression. Psychiatrists are trained in mental illnesses and disorders and are likely familiar enough with the signs of depression that referencing the DSM-V isn’t always necessary.

Physicians, on the other hand, aren’t usually trained in mental health diagnosis and may not be familiar with screening and diagnostic procedures for mental illnesses. Unfortunately, that means that nearly two-thirds of all those misdiagnosed with depression aren’t getting the proper treatment.

Do I Have ADHD or Depression? Or Both?

Depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have a unique relationship. They can both be comorbid, which means you can have depression and ADHD simultaneously. However, the connection between ADHD and depression is more complicated than that. Not only can you have both disorders independently, but having ADHD can cause depression to develop.

Additionally, there is a neurological connection between depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. People with depression and ADHD exhibit low levels of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine and other neurotransmitters—like serotonin and dopamine—in their brains. This norepinephrine connection might offer some clues as to why depression and ADHD are so interrelated.

The Role of Norepinephrine in the Brains of Patients With Depression and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Norepinephrine is a common denominator for both ADHD and depression.

Norepinephrine and Depression

Norepinephrine (NE) is one of the essential neurotransmitters responsible for regulating emotions due to its presence in the brain’s limbic system. The brains of deceased people with clinical depression were shown to have receptors with different densities and sensitivities to norepinephrine binding capabilities in the brain compared to those who were not depressed.

Norepinephrine and ADHD

Over many years of clinical research, neuroscientists found that low levels of norepinephrine in four specific brain regions associated with focus, attention, memory, and executive function were directly correlated to the emergence of ADHD symptoms.

Norepinephrine, Depression, and ADHD: The Takeaway

Depression and ADHD both exhibit deficiencies with the neurotransmitter norepinephrine and have irregularities in the regions of the brain that affect mood, attention, memory, and executive function.

We’ve established how depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are similar, but what are some ways to tell both disorders apart?

How To Tell Depression and ADHD Apart

Though there are many similarities between ADHD and depression symptoms, some differences between the two disorders can help clarify what mental health disorder you may be experiencing.

Differences in Mood

Both depression and ADHD cause changes in mood, but how and when these changes occur can provide some insight into what you might be experiencing.

In general, depression is more episodic (unless the person has dysthymia, also known as chronic depressive disorder). With depression, the person will have periods of normal and depressed mood. Comparatively, the mood symptoms of ADHD tend to occur steadily and chronically when not treated. 

Differences in Sleep

Depression and ADHD both affect a person’s sleeping habits bi-directionally. This means depression and ADHD impact a person’s sleeping habits, and, in turn, poor quality sleep impacts ADHD and depression symptoms. It’s a feedback loop.

Sometimes these sleep symptoms overlap, but other times they are distinct. The difference can offer some insight into what you may be experiencing. Some with depression sleep too much or spend too much time in bed.

This is usually not the case if you’re experiencing ADHD symptoms. If you have ADHD, you might not be able to fall asleep due to racing thoughts and other distractions—like noises— that prevent them from falling asleep.  

Differences in Motivation

On the surface, depression and ADHD affect a person’s motivation to perform everyday tasks. However, when you look a bit closer, the cause of motivational issues with depression differs considerably from what appears to be motivational issues with ADHD. 

With ADHD, a person struggles to start tasks because their attention is negatively affected by their ADHD symptoms. They have difficulty getting started and maintaining momentum because they are easily distracted or feel overwhelmed by the choices ahead of them—leading to paralysis. On the other hand, a depressed person can no longer find joy, purpose, or reason to engage in activities they once enjoyed.Again, we see a difference. ADHD motivational issues are chronic—the person is always distracted—however, depression motivational issues are acute— motivational symptoms appear during depressive episodes and are not a constant issue for those with depression compared to those with ADHD.

Depression Diagnosis and Untreated ADHD

Since 30% of people with ADHD also get diagnosed with depression at some point, it’s essential to consider the inverse. How many people have a depression diagnosis but don’t know that their depression is actually a symptom of untreated ADHD?

Getting a correct diagnosis requires the expertise of a trained medical provider. You should never attempt to self-diagnose.

Untreated ADHD in Adults

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 4.4% of adults have an ADHD diagnosis, but the actual number is projected to be double that—around 8.8%. That means half of the adults with ADHD aren’t receiving treatment and endure without the proper care. 

Symptoms of Untreated ADHD

  • Difficulty focusing attention
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Restlessness
  • Trouble falling asleep
  • Excessive fidgeting
  • Impulsive behavior
  • Difficulty regulating emotions
  • Irritability
  • Racing thoughts
  • Inability to calm down or relax
  • Trouble remembering where you put your keys / other items
  • Difficulty managing a schedule/keeping appointments
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Anxiety disorders

Sometimes, people with ADHD exhibit ‘hyperfocus,’ which initially seems paradoxical. Adults and children with ADHD can become wholly engrossed in a task or activity that interests them. During hyperfocus, hours can go by without the person noticing.  

As mentioned above, untreated ADHD can significantly impact an adult’s performance at work, school, and in interpersonal relationships. Let’s dig deeper into how untreated ADHD negatively impacts an adult’s life.

Untreated ADHD Affects Job Instability 

Researchers concluded that untreated ADHD leads to job instability in young adults in a meta-analysis. Because untreated ADHD affects a person’s ability to manage tasks and remain focused, they are less likely to succeed in the workplace. 

Untreated ADHD Affects Relationships

Since ADHD affects a person’s attentiveness, spouses of people with ADHD often report feeling neglected and report lower marital satisfaction. Additionally, ADHD increases impulsive behavior and increases the chances of mood swings. This unpredictability can strain romantic relationships, friendships, and familial relationships, including their relationships with their children.

Untreated ADHD and Increased Drug and Alcohol Use

Adults with ADHD are also more likely to use and abuse drugs and alcohol due to their impulsive behavior, poor self-esteem, and difficulty managing risk. 

Untreated ADHD Creates a Higher Risk of Depression and Anxiety Disorders

Untreated ADHD symptoms can cause many challenges and hardships for people without an accurate diagnosis. Because of this, adults with untreated ADHD have an increased risk of developing depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.

Overlapping ADHD and Depression

ADHD symptoms usually emerge earlier than symptoms of depression—ADHD symptoms are detectable in children as young as three years old. Depression symptoms typically don’t manifest until a person reaches adolescence or young adulthood.

If the signs of ADHD are ignored or overlooked in children, those children are more likely to develop depression later in life as adolescents or adults. That’s one reason why receiving a correct diagnosis early on is so important.

What Are The Risk Factors of Comorbid ADHD and Depression?

ADHD is one of the most heritable mental disorders—meaning you are much more likely to have it if a family member has it. Some studies suggest that if one of your parents has ADHD, there is a 91% chance you will experience some form of ADHD symptoms in your lifetime. Depression has a heritability between 40% – 50%, markedly less than ADHD but still significant. 

When a person has ADHD, environmental risk factors—like poverty, crime, or job loss— are more likely to cause depression than genetic factors. 

Detection in Males vs. Females

Males are more likely to receive ADHD diagnoses than females but are less likely to have comorbid depression. Therefore, females with ADHD are much more likely to experience comorbid depression.

Do I Have Adult ADHD? Self-Test Resources

If you exhibit some of the symptoms of ADHD and are concerned, you might have undiagnosed ADHD, several free resources can help. These resources indicate whether or not you should seek a medical diagnosis from a healthcare provider. 

ADHD Self-Evaluation

As mentioned above, Klarity offers a 2-minute self-evaluation. This test assesses whether or not you should seek further diagnosis from a healthcare provider.

Adult Attention Span Self-Evaluation

There are also many attention span self-evaluations you can take online. Like our self-evaluation test, the results of these tests are not diagnoses. Instead, they help you decide whether or not you should meet with a healthcare provider for further tests.   

Better Faster. Klarity Can Help You Get a Depression or ADHD Diagnosis in 48 Hours

Nobody likes uncertainty, and nobody wants to wait a long time to find things out.

If you are uncertain whether your symptoms indicate ADHD, depression, or both and don’t want to wait weeks to meet with a trained medical provider in person, then you need to try Klarity. 

Klarity can get you an appointment with a healthcare provider specializing in ADHD and depression diagnosis and treatment within 48 hours. Providers on Klarity will consider all your symptoms when making a diagnosis, develop a personalized treatment plan if applicable, and get you better faster. You only need to take our free, 2-minute self-assessment to get started.

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