As stay-at-home orders and school and business closures gripped the world in early 2020, the mass disruption and social isolation of COVID-19 laid bare previously overlooked mental health symptoms for many young people. Some felt no external motivation to stay organized due to the complete loss of routine and extended solitude. Others found it nearly impossible to work or keep their grades up because of the switch to a remote setting. For many — particularly Gen Z and millennial womxn and nonbinary people — getting an ADHD diagnosis amid the pandemic helped explain why they were struggling and created a path forward.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, better known as ADHD, is a neurological disorder that has three main types: predominantly inattentive (formerly known as attention deficit disorder or ADD), predominantly hyperactive-impulsive, and combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Since the start of the pandemic, more and more people with ADHD — or those who thought they could have the disorder — have taken self-assessments, joined virtual ADHD communities, sought consultations with ADHD coaches and specialists, and inquired about medication through telehealth or in-person interactions. According to Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), calls to its helpline have increased by 62% since the introduction of the novel coronavirus. Though children and adolescent boys saw the largest spike in diagnoses this past year, that increased awareness of ADHD meant many young women and nonbinary people realized their symptoms could potentially be explained, too. But the road to an ADHD diagnosis for adult womxn is often longer and fraught with doubt and misconceptions.
In part due to gender bias and the legacy of outdated criteria, ADHD in girls and women remains under-researched, underdiagnosed, and overlooked. According to CHADD, throughout childhood, teachers are more likely to spot hyperactivity in boys, while girls are more likely to present the inattentive type and overcompensate for symptoms. Though research on exactly why these gender differences exist is lacking, societal expectations may shape how girls internalize and mask symptoms. These factors contribute to medical professionals often mistaking ADHD symptoms in women for depression or anxiety, which could lead to more issues for those living with the disorder, such as lower self-esteem; feeling “lazy,” “worthless,” or “stupid”; and/or constantly feeling overwhelmed at school or work. When ADHD is left untreated, some womxn are even forced to postpone college and give up on certain career paths, further isolating them as they navigate an already alienating experience.
Elite Daily spoke with 10 such Gen Z and millennial women and nonbinary people who were diagnosed with ADHD after the pandemic began. Some only recognized their own ADHD through social media posts or after years of therapy for other conditions. Here, they detail how receiving a diagnosis and treatment brought relief, grief, joy, anger, as well as a new understanding of who they are and what they can accomplish.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Christine, 20, diagnosed with ADHD inattentive type in November 2020
Christine (she/her) is a college junior from Evanston, Illinois.
Staring at a screen all day is bad for my mental health. I tanked last quarter without that physical classroom setting to help me focus. I would get depressed and blame myself and get in my head about it, which made my anxiety and depression worse, which made my ability to focus even worse — it was just a really bad cycle. Knowing now that I have ADHD, no wonder I couldn't focus in class.
My ADHD medication kicked in around finals. I remember I cried because I was finally able to sit down and work on a project for an hour. I was like, “Wow, this is what normal is like.” I don't know if I would even be in school right now if I had not gotten diagnosed.
Dustine, 24, diagnosed with ADHD inattentive type in February 2021
Dustine (she/her) is a lab and X-ray technician from Edmonton, Alberta.
I struggle with repetitive, boring tasks, including any sort of housework. Even if I did have friends in the area, no one was coming over because of the pandemic, so I had no outside motivation to stay on top of things. Then someone shared a social media post about ADHD, so I read more about it, and I was like, “This doesn't just hit a couple of the things I'm struggling with; it encompasses all of them.” After that, I ended up finding a psychologist who specializes in adult ADHD and got diagnosed.
I think about finishing my bachelors, and what it would take to get a masters or a doctorate. I've always thought about it, but I’ve never been able to actually say I could do it before my diagnosis for fear of failure. If I get medication, what’s to say I can't do those things? Going forward, I’m trying not to put restrictions on myself.
Yetunde, 26, diagnosed with ADHD combined type and generalized anxiety disorder in February 2021
Yetunde (she/her) is a student and works as an applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapist in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
I was seeing a school counselor for what I thought was depression and social anxiety. She was like, “You're kind of leaning toward inattentive.” But my doctor brushed it off. I ended up making an appointment with another doctor who actually listened to me. She prescribed me medication, and it made the world become clear. I didn't forget to clock in or clock out at work, and I wasn't super anxious either.
That doctor referred me to my current psychiatrist — who dismissed it as problems with time management. So I went to Psychology Today and found a nurse practitioner who diagnosed me with ADHD. I haven't told my new psychiatrist about my diagnosis yet. I feel like I have to have something in my back pocket that I can bring up later, otherwise people just won't listen.
Dana, 31, diagnosed with ADHD combined type in August 2020
Dana (she/her) works in classical music administration and plays the oboe in Montreal, Quebec.
About four months before the pandemic started, I started seeing a therapist (again) for overwhelming anxiety and not being able to function at all. He was like, “You're being a perfectionist.”
When the pandemic hit, I did something called the morning pages, where you're supposed to write three pages freehand as soon as you wake up in the morning. The idea is that you'll end up writing the same complaints, and eventually you have to take action. That was the final catalyst for me to get the assessment because every morning I was writing: "My brain is so foggy," "I’m so confused," "It's so hard to get up and do anything." Getting my diagnosis was a huge relief. You want an explanation for why you couldn't do things the way other people did them.
Azekel, 24, diagnosed with ADHD inattentive type in February 2021
Azekel (they/them) is the administrative director and founder of Black Trans Foundation and a student studying sociology in London, U.K.
All my life, I’ve been kind of like, “Next academic year I'm going to plan ahead, and get all my stuff done on time” — and every year, that didn't happen. But suddenly with the pandemic, it was 10 times harder, which meant it was basically impossible. I didn’t realize there could be an explanation until I stumbled upon an ADHD Instagram account and an ADHD support group on Twitter.
The current waiting list to get an ADHD assessment on the National Health Service is two years. Then, my friend sent me a message about the “right to choose.” It means that if your doctor refers you for a test for a mental health condition — not all, but ADHD is included — you have the legal right to choose where that test takes place. You can get tested at Psychiatry UK for free within three weeks. But because a lot of general practitioners haven't heard of it, I had to threaten legal action for my GP to fund my referral.
As a Black, trans, queer person, I know how to advocate for myself now in health care. I know this system hasn't been built for me. This diagnosis was the only way that I could finish my degree. I did neuroscience for two years and then dropped out, and looking back, it's because I wasn't supported. I thought I was worthless, but it wasn't me who wasn't working hard enough — I was being disabled by the education system. I feel hope, because now I've got this diagnosis; I see it as a new way of looking at myself and my identity.
Janelle, 31, diagnosed with ADHD in March 2021
Janelle (she/her) is a photographer from Two Hills, Alberta.
It was a TikTok that helped me realize I might have ADHD. Essentially, a woman in the TikTok was like, “If you’ve spent your life doing this and this, you might have ADHD.” I read through and I was like, “I feel so attacked!” I mentioned that this might be a consideration to my therapist, and she said, “Oh, that explains a lot.”
Once I started exploring feminist perspectives on the intersection between women and mental health, it made me really mad because I had more than enough symptoms to be diagnosed formally when I was a child. But it took a woman on a TikTok for me to go, “Ding ding ding, that’s what that is.”
Morgan, 24, diagnosed with ADHD inattentive type in October 2020
Morgan (she/her) is a software developer living in Austin, Texas.
I got officially diagnosed with ADD (which had different diagnosis criteria than ADHD) and dyslexia in late kindergarten or early first grade. When my boyfriend and I started working from home in March 2020, I wanted to look into how ADHD impacts relationships because going from long distance to living together was a big jump. My coping mechanisms — such as getting dressed, going to work — all of a sudden, that was all gone. That’s when I learned about the latest diagnostic criteria and found an ADHD specialist.
My ADHD diagnosis was reaffirming. I found out I had dyscalculia, also known as math dyslexia. I also learned the specific term for dysgraphia, which is writing wrong. It's added more depth to what's going on inside of me. Understanding has given me power.
Maya, 20, diagnosed with ADHD inattentive type in December 2020
Maya (they/them) is a student from Chesapeake, Virginia.
As the fall semester started my junior year, I was feeling very isolated and lonely amid the pandemic. So I went to Washington, D.C., the last weekend of September to hang out with some friends. I felt excited and happy around them — but when I got back, I hit a wall. During the following two months, I experienced a bout of depression. Then I came across ADHD in a video — it became my hyperfixation for the two months after that.
A psychologist diagnosed me with major depression and mild anxiety. I was upset because I felt the evaluation wasn't thorough enough, and I felt I couldn't get my point across well. I ended up finding a psychiatrist and went through a different evaluation, and I was eventually diagnosed with ADHD as well.
Once I came to terms with the fact that I have ADHD, I was really sad. I’ve always done well in school, but I always felt like something was holding me back. I took a lot of symptoms growing up as personal failings rather than something that was out of my control. I was really angry with my parents and teachers who never really noticed anything. My ADHD being untreated for so long definitely contributed to those depression and anxiety symptoms.
Wynonna, 24, diagnosed with ADHD inattentive type in February 2021
Wynonna (she/her) is an administrative assistant from Cebu, The Philippines.
The last few years, I have had constant problems with attention, forgetfulness, and starting on tasks. At first, I thought that was just because of my bipolar II disorder. However, as my mood got stable, all of these other, unexplained problems persisted. It did make me consider bringing ADHD up with my psychiatrist a few times, but I decided against it, since I didn't want it to feel like I was just trying to find an excuse for my "laziness." Plus, when I read about ADHD before, I felt like I couldn't relate to it or the people who would post about it. When I finally decided to bring it up, my psychiatrist insisted that I look up ADHD in women, as it presents differently for us than in men.
I still doubt my diagnosis sometimes. But at the same time, it has been enlightening, especially looking back and learning about executive dysfunction, which is a term used to describe difficulty organizing behaviors to accomplish goals. I want to be able to take on more difficult tasks or just enjoy my hobbies.
Veronica, 22, diagnosed with ADHD inattentive type in January 2021
Veronica (she/her) is a student in Grinnell, Iowa.
Before my diagnosis, when I was in a state of hyperfocus, literally nothing else mattered. One time, I was on campus working on an assignment outside. (The campus didn't have any buildings open because of COVID-19.) I had to go to the bathroom, but I didn't want to go back to my house, which was a few blocks away. So, I literally took a sh*t in a bush to be able to finish this assignment. That’s when I remembered that, as a child, I would not use the bathroom at school because I was so afraid of going and having to come back and re-acclimate to what was going on. It triggered me to go, “Wait, is this not normal?” I started asking, “Why is this so hard for me? Is this actually something I’ve been dealing with for a long time?” I was lucky to know someone who lived nearby who had ADHD.
It was a six-month wait to even be able to get tested for ADHD. During that time, I learned my closest friends from home have it. It can feel like you’re lying when you’re not being your full self around other people, but this has shown me who I am most comfortable with.