Girls with ADHD more likely to inflict self-harm, attempt suicide, study shows

A study, published Tuesday and led by UC Berkeley researchers and psychologists, reveals girls who suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder show higher rates of self-inflicted injury and suicide attempts compared to girls who do not have the disorder.

ADHD is a chronic psychiatric disorder characterized by problems with attention and hyperactivity that is commonly diagnosed in children.

The study, done over a period of 20 years and funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, found that 22 percent of the girls in the study who were diagnosed as both ADHD-inattentive and ADHD-impulsive reported at least one attempt at suicide at the 10-year follow up mark. For the girls who were only diagnosed with ADHD-inattentive, 8 percent reported at least one attempt, whereas only 6 percent of the control group attempted suicide at some point.

Meanwhile, in the category of self-inflicted harm, 51 percent of the ADHD-combined group reported actions such as scratching, cutting, burning or hitting themselves, compared to 29 percent in the ADHD-inattentive group and 19 percent in the control group who reported these actions.

Initially, most of the girls in the study were from the East Bay and were age 6 to 12. One hundred forty girls diagnosed with ADHD and 88 girls without the disorder were followed from their childhood up to their teen and young adult years in order to track the effects of the disorder.

“These findings are big news,” said Stephen Hinshaw, UC Berkeley Psychology professor and lead researcher on the study. “The reality is that ADHD is a highly genetic condition with a strong biological basis, and from our study, we can see that it follows girls into their young adult years and continues to impact their lives.”

Hinshaw’s research team conducted diagnostic tests and collected information directly from the girls, but also spoke with parents and educators about the girls’ developmental histories.

Director of the study Christine Zalecki, who is also a member of the UC Berkeley psychiatry department and a clinical psychologist, said the study is unique for being the first large, long-term study regarding girls with ADHD.

“It is important for practitioners to know and be more aware of the possibility that their patients and girls with ADHD might be inflicting damage to themselves,” Zalecki said.

Hinshaw said a combination of good parenting and good teaching is often the most effective treatment for patients with ADHD, although medication is often prescribed as well.

“There are a lot of factors that contribute to self-inflicted harm and suicide, and those factors also need to be a part of the next analysis that we do to understand what exactly contributes to these actions besides simply having ADHD, ” Zalecki said.

Elizabeth Owens, a UC Berkeley psychologist working on the study, said the team is now waiting on another grant application, which would allow them to continue the study and follow the girls through the ages of 22 to 27.

“Their lives are far from over at this point and we can learn a lot more about how symptoms of ADHD manifest later on in their lives,” Owens said.