A mother and son talking to a doctor about an ADHD and depression diagnosis.

The Link Between ADHD and Depression in Adolescents

Depression and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are both common mental health conditions that young adults and adolescents experience. However, while they share some common symptoms, they are different things. A diagnosis of ADHD does not automatically mean a depression diagnosis – however, the two are often comorbidities.

Understanding the link between ADHD and depression – and the differences between the two – can help you or your loved one find the proper mental health care needed to manage the symptoms of either disorder.

What Is ADHD?

Adolescent and adult ADHD is a common neurodevelopmental disorder that often develops during childhood. Approximately 9% of children in the U.S. receive an ADHD diagnosis. There are many common symptoms of ADHD, making it easy to be mistaken for a learning disability.

Symptoms of ADHD

ADHD is characterized by difficulty focusing and hyperactivity. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, common symptoms include the following:

    • Impulsivity
    • Fidgeting
    • Excessive talking
    • Forgetfulness
    • Short attention span
    • Difficulty with organization
    • Interrupting others
    • Difficulty following instructions and listening closely
    • Difficulty managing time
    • Being inattentive to small details
    • Irritability

Treatment of ADHD

When it comes to treating ADHD, mental health care professionals commonly use both behavior therapy and medication. Behavior therapy helps teach positive coping skills that lessen the symptoms of ADHD.

Most medications for the treatment of ADHD are stimulants, but there are non-stimulant medications available, as well. As with any medication, it’s important to discuss all the potential side effects of the drug. ADHD medications may have some side effects, including decreased appetite, headaches, and drowsiness.

There are also new treatments being developed that do not involve medications.

When you’re the parent of a child with ADHD, therapy often involves learning skills to help your child manage their behavior and respond to their symptoms, as well as you learning how to positively impact their behavior and your ability to help your child.

What Is Depression?

Major depression is a mood disorder that can greatly impact your daily life. It causes feelings of intense sadness and worthlessness, and in serious instances, can lead to self-harm and thoughts of suicide.

If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts or have made a suicide attempt, it is important to reach out for help immediately. You can contact the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing or texting 988 to receive free and confidential support at any time. 

While ADHD typically develops early on, depression develops over time. It’s a common mental health condition that has been on the rise in young adults and adolescents.

Here are some risk factors in developing depression:

  • The experience of trauma or personal loss
  • Financial hardship
  • Gender (females are more likely to receive a diagnosis of depression)
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Substance use
  • Chemical imbalances in the brain

To be diagnosed with major depressive disorder, depressive symptoms must last for two weeks or more. Those who struggle with bipolar disorder also experience depressive episodes while going through periods of elevated moods, known as mania.

Symptoms of Depression

Below are the most common symptoms of depression:

    • A loss of interest in hobbies and daily life
    • Feelings of persistent sadness
    • Low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness
    • Impairment to daily life and executive functioning
    • Difficulty sleeping, including insomnia or oversleeping
    • Loss of appetite or overeating
    • Irritability and moodiness
    • Substance abuse
    • Self-harm
    • Thoughts of suicide

Treatment of Depression

To treat depression, modern psychiatry recommends both behavioral therapy and medication. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the leading methods of treatment. This form of psychotherapy helps replace negative thoughts and coping mechanisms with more healthy thought patterns and behaviors.

Antidepressant medications can help alleviate the chemical imbalances that lead to depression while increasing your well-being. Some medications for depression, such as bupropion, are also effective for ADHD.

Research is ongoing in using treatments that stimulate affected areas of the brain to improve function and decrease symptoms.

Overlapping Symptoms

Signs of depression and signs of ADHD can appear similar on the surface. Both can lead to issues with managing time and disinterest in what is happening around you. Both interfere with focus, and both can cause irritability. Depression often affects your memory, so those suffering from both can struggle with forgetfulness. Issues with sleeping and eating, as well as a restless feeling, are also common in both mental health conditions.

Sometimes one condition can be misdiagnosed for the other. However, there are also some key differences. For example, persistent sadness is not a symptom of ADHD, and those with ADHD do not lose interest in things they enjoy. That being said, many people with ADHD may begin to develop these symptoms if they are struggling with managing their disorder.

Is ADHD a Risk Factor For Depression?

People who have ADHD are at a higher risk of depression than those without it. Approximately 32.7% of those who had ADHD as a child have recurrent depression later in life compared to 26.5% of those who do not have ADHD.

There are a few theories for why the prevalence of depression is higher in those who have ADHD.

Increased Risk Due to ADHD Symptoms

One common theory is that those who have ADHD develop depression due to the struggles presented by their disorder. These issues can increase the likelihood of depression later in life.

When you have ADHD, you are more likely to avoid stressful or challenging situations that disrupt your ability to handle daily tasks or keep you from resolving problems. This can cause feelings of worthlessness that contribute to developing depression.

Also, without the proper care and interventions, ADHD can cause students to struggle with schoolwork. The lack of academic achievement can lead to feelings of low self-esteem, which can lead to developing depression. Since they struggle with paying attention and fidgeting, this can also lead to disciplinary issues in school.

Symptoms of ADHD can also be disruptive to relationships. Lack of focus, tendency to interrupt others, and impulsivity may make it difficult to form friendships as easily as peers. This can lead to a feeling of isolation that also contributes to developing depression and anxiety disorders.

Treating ADHD and making its symptoms more manageable can lead to lowered rates of depression. Studies have shown that those who receive treatment for their ADHD are 20% less likely to have depressive episodes. 

Similar Genetic Factors

Genetic factors play a big role in developing ADHD. In cases where a twin was diagnosed with the disorder, the other sibling was 77-88% likely to have it, as well. Even in cases of adoption, inheritability is high, meaning that genetic factors play a significant role in developing ADHD.

Depression shares similar genetic factors to ADHD, meaning that the genetic conditions may first manifest as ADHD and develop into depression as you become a young adult.

Managing ADHD and Depression

If you or a loved one are struggling with both ADHD and depression, it can feel overwhelming. Those who suffer from both have a higher risk of suicide. Having comorbid ADHD and depression tends to make the symptoms of both more severe and can create complications in treatment. But, managing them is entirely possible with the right help.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is effective at not only developing healthy coping mechanisms to treat depression but also developing executive function skills that can aid ADHD symptoms. Lifestyle changes like developing a routine, eating healthy, and exercising also help manage the symptoms of both ADHD and depression.

Sometimes, stimulant medications like Adderall can worsen some aspects of depression, especially as the medication fades. If this is the case, then you or your loved one may need to switch to non-stimulant medications.

Some antidepressants can be effective for managing both depression and ADHD. While antidepressants that only affect your serotonin levels haven’t been effective in managing ADHD, norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitors and tricyclic anti-depressants have.

A Better Tomorrow Starts Today

If you’re the parent of a child or young adult with ADHD, finding help today can lower their risk of depression tomorrow. And, if you suspect you or your loved one are already suffering from comorbid ADHD and depression, then it’s never too late to start making lasting changes for an increased sense of well-being (and ultimately a happier life).

At Meridian HealthCare, we are here to help you take that first step. Our caring mental health professionals are experts in a wide range of psychotherapy techniques, and we have specialists devoted to helping adolescents navigate complex issues.

If you or your loved one are struggling with your mental health, reach out to our adult or youth counselors, and find the help you deserve today.