Depression Risks Soar in Women With Trauma Histories and ADHD

Posted on May 2nd, 2015
Posted in Mental Health

New findings from a team of American researchers indicate that a combined history of ADHD and exposure to highly traumatic situations in childhood significantly increase young women’s chances of developing depression and experiencing a range of other serious or severe mental health issues.

Compared to men, women have much greater chances of developing symptoms of depression or a diagnosable eating disorder. In a study published in February 2015 in the journal Development and Psychopathology, researchers from three American universities looked at the impact that a combined history of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and childhood exposure to trauma-inducing situations has on the chances that a young woman will become depressed, develop an eating disorder, engage in nonsuicidal self-injury or make an active suicide attempt.

Girls, Women and ADHD

In basic biological terms, ADHD (characterized by unusually hyperactive or impulsive behavior and/or an unusual inability to focus attention) affects girls and women in essentially the same way as it affects boys and men. However, boys in the U.S. develop symptoms of the disorder roughly 200 percent more often than girls. In addition, boys with ADHD typically have more impulsive/aggressive symptoms than their female counterparts and therefore have higher risks for involvement in significantly disruptive behavior. By the time children pass through adolescence and reach adulthood, the gender gap in ADHD rates disappears; this means that women and men have basically equal chances of exhibiting symptoms of the disorder. Still, while men and women with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder commonly have similar general symptoms, those symptoms may manifest quite differently in each of the two genders.

Girls commonly receive an ADHD diagnosis later in life than their male counterparts. However, this may simply be an artifact of boys’ generally pronounced tendency to behave aggressively or disruptively and draw attention to themselves. During adulthood, ADHD may damage a woman’s ability to function more than a man’s ability to function. This is true largely because women traditionally take most of the responsibility for organizing their home and family environments, even when they hold jobs just like men.

Girls, Women and Trauma Exposure

Traumatic situations are situations that pose a threat to life and/or well-being and at least temporarily override the human body’s ability to cope with stress. Over the course of a lifetime, boys and men have a somewhat higher rate of exposure to these situations than girls and women. However, girls and women have a higher rate of exposure to specific forms of trauma (especially childhood sexual abuse and rape and other forms of sexual assault) noted for their ability to trigger lasting emotional/psychological problems. Perhaps the most well-known consequence of trauma exposure is the mental health condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Other diagnosable problems associated with such exposure include depressive illnesses like major depression, as well as panic disorder and other anxiety disorders.

Impact of a Combined History

In the study published in Development and Psychopathology, researchers from the University of California Berkeley, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Michigan used data drawn from 140 participants in a long-term project called the Berkeley Girls with ADHD Longitudinal Study to determine the impact that a combined history of ADHD and trauma exposure has on the mental health of young women. At the beginning of this project, all of the participants were young girls diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. The project’s administrators tracked these girls throughout adolescence and into early adulthood; in addition to assessing the effects of ADHD in each individual, they noted each person’s level of exposure to forms of trauma such as childhood physical abuse, childhood sexual abuse and childhood neglect.

The current researchers preliminarily found that 23 percent of the study participants had a history of exposure to physical abuse, sexual abuse or neglect during childhood. They concluded that the young women whose personal histories included childhood trauma in addition to ADHD experienced depression substantially more often than their counterparts only affected by ADHD. The young women with a combined ADHD/childhood trauma history also had higher levels of exposure to anxiety disorders, anorexia and other eating disorders and self-injuring or overtly suicidal behavior. The study’s authors believe they are the first researchers to provide such a long-term overview of the connection between ADHD, childhood trauma and increased risks for serious or severe mental health issues in young women.

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