A few months ago, when I was on my second or twelfth break from writing a paper I should have finished weeks ago, I turned to one of my favorite forms of distraction: TikTok. When I opened the app, I was greeted by a young woman with a heart drawn on her cheek describing some personality traits that she never realized were related to her ADHD diagnosis. This was the first time I had seen a TikTok about ADHD, though it didn’t surprise me at all to see that type of content on the app. Nice. The app I use to constantly distract myself from whatever work needs to get done that day is trying to tell me I have an attention problem. The more I watched, though, the more I noticed that this went a lot deeper than the FBI agents in our phones knowing way too much about us; there was an emerging trend of people, particularly women, talking about what it’s really like living with ADHD.
In fact, there are so many people talking about this that if you search “ADHD TikToks” on YouTube, you’ll find hours of video compilations of TikToks about the condition, especially in women. There are TikToks about the unusual symptoms in girls, TikToks explaining misconceptions about ADHD that have prevented women from getting a diagnosis until later in life, and videos of women describing the difficulties of their lives before they were able to receive a proper diagnosis. There are even tweets and TikToks from women who didn’t get an ADHD diagnosis until they recently saw a TikTok about ADHD—very meta. So, what’s really going on that stopping these women from getting the diagnosis they need?
Why Are All These Women Not Getting Diagnosed?
Many of the women in their TikToks discuss a common experience: how the belief that ADHD is a “boy’s disease” prevented them from getting a diagnosis. It’s true—when ADHD was first being researched, it was thought to be a hyperactivity disorder that only affected men during their childhood years, and the studies would only include young white males. That racist and sexist research is what was used to guide the writing of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders), and science’s foundational understanding of ADHD. At that point in time, only the most hyperactive young girls who presented similarly to boys could hope to get an appropriate ADHD diagnosis. Today, the gender difference in diagnoses of ADHD persists, and about three boys are diagnosed for every one girl, but this might have less to do with more boys actually having ADHD and have more to do with them exhibiting the more “stereotypical” features of it.
@princessaspien🌻ADHD Traits In Girls🌻 #adhd #fyp #autism♬ original sound – Chloé Hayden
In addition to the bias in diagnostic criteria, boys with ADHD who have hyperactive traits just tend to get noticed by professionals more often: they are more often hyperactive, aggressive, and impulsive, while girls tend to be usually dreamy and easily distractible. The boy who can’t sit still in class and talks over the teacher multiple times a day is probably going to get more attention than the girl who spaces out in math class.
So, Are The TikToks Right?
Obviously, anyone can post anything on TikTok at any time, and you can’t blindly trust every single video that you scroll past on your page. That said, it is absolutely true that ADHD can present differently in women. Unfortunately, the research is still pretty slim, but there is some literature on the differences. In a recent episode of ADHD Experts Podcast, Ellen Littman, PhD describes some of the lesser known problems that women with ADHD can face, which include tactile sensitivities, headaches including migraines, stomach aches, sensory problems, sensitivity to changes in light, and sensitivity to odors. Littman also describes how the evaluation tools are still skewed toward male behaviors, and how “many instruments are not normed for women’s values, so we are still perpetuating the idea that it is much easier to be diagnosed if you look similar to hyperactive males.” In addition to being dreamier and more distractible versus hyperactive and impulsive, young girls may be more likely to internalize their symptoms and feel anxiety around them. This makes getting a diagnosis even more important. Girls who aren’t told they have ADHD and given appropriate help and accommodations may feel like they’re less competent than their classmates or peers or that something is really wrong with them.
@peterhyphenAs a guy with ADHD, I don’t know what it’s like firsthand for the girls and women out there. Please make yourself heard in the comments! #ADHD #ADD♬ original sound – Peter Hyphen
It’s important to note that no two people are going to have the exact same experience with any diagnosis, so a video about TikTok-user-7543009’s individual experience with ADHD doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone who has it. And, if you find yourself relating hard to the symptoms described, and feel that it is negatively impacting your daily life, you should reach out to a medical professional.
Regardless of whether the videos apply to every single person with ADHD, the important part of this trend is that TikTok is providing a platform for women to express experiences that were underrepresented in research or in clinical tools, and having these conversations can help more people get the help they need.
And It’s Not Just ADHD
TikTok has opened the door for important discussions surrounding women with ADHD, but that’s not the only medically underrepresented group it’s helping to shine a light on. For example, there is a large community of women with autism, like @Paigelyale, who discuss having faced stereotypes about what autism looks like, which led to issues getting a diagnosis. Beyond autism and ADHD, there are TikTokers making content about their experience being deaf, living with OCD, even what it’s like to try to make pie with Tourette’s.
Social media platforms have come under scrutiny in recent years for issues such as promoting the spread of misinformation to being designed to negatively impact users’ mental health. (A 2017 survey dubbed Instagram the worst social media platform for mental health and wellbeing.) But the silver lining is that for some reason—whether it’s the algorithm, the nature of sharing quick videos, or the unfiltered approach—TikTok is creating a space for people to speak openly about a slew of important issues, including mental health. TikTok has given these creators a platform where they can talk candidly about their experiences and bring to light the issues that truly matter to them, and has given scrollers a community of people they can relate to, in ways they may not be able to with their IRL friends. This content has also provided some of the 800 million TikTok users with exposure to these groups that they may not have otherwise had. Mental illness, neurodivergence, and disabilities often come with a heavy stigma, and more representation from people who seem funny, cool, and relatable helps correct misconceptions and remove that stigma.
Kristin Wilson, LPC, Vice President of Clinical Outreach at Newport Academy, a mental health facility for teenagers dealing with mental health issues, told Yahoo! that the type of mental health conversations happening on TikTok “can help teens feel that they are not alone in their struggles and create an online community of support.” Psychiatrist David J. Puder, MD, told Psycom.net, “I think we can do a lot to reduce stigma and get people into mental health treatment. Knowledge is empowering to people who might not otherwise have access.”
These types of conversations can also be a double-edged sword, with some experts fearing that these videos could glamorize mental illnesses. It’s also crucial to keep in mind that TikTok isn’t a substitute for receiving treatment. Still, experts stress that if you do your own fact-checking and don’t take TikTok users as armchair mental health professionals, these types of videos can help reduce stigma and encourage people to seek out mental health treatment. In a time when social media has a reputation for doing more harm than good to our mental health, these communities on TikTok are consistently proving otherwise.
Images: XanderSt / shutterstock.com; princessaspien, peterhyphen / TikTok
Okay, story time: I used to work as a front desk girl for a popular “boutique” spinning studio. Not gonna name names because you’ve clearly figured it out already, and I lasted a month there. The place prided itself on being super open-minded and all about getting in touch with yourself, overcoming challenges, and following your soul. Once, we played an icebreaker game where we went around the room, said our name, the studio we worked at, and something we do to relax. Every. Single. Person. said alcohol is their way to unwind, along with watching a TV show or, of course, working out. I was last, and I said, “taking an edible and tanning.” The CPR woman looked like she was in shock, and was all, “Okaaaayyyy, moving on.” So much for being a liberal as your brand markets itself being, huh? Remind me why weed is worse than alcohol again?
Marijuana is the fastest growing industry both nationally and internationally. There’s luxury marijuana getaways, weed treats, marijuana spas and bath bombs, people are literally putting it in their green juice. And don’t get anyone started on the benefits of CBD because, honestly, I don’t wanna endure listening to them pontificate about its benefits as if I don’t know them already.
But that doesn’t mean there still isn’t negative connotations around marijuana use.
Yes I smoke weed everyday. No I’m not lazy. I’m literally almost a straight A student in college rn. I’m living my life and getting the shit I need done,yes I have slip ups and that’s human. Weed has helped me in so many ways that I’m forever going to defend it and its stigma.
— Bambi (@suckmypoptarts) April 13, 2019
When I was 14 years old, I got diagnosed with the most severe case of ADHD possible—I was in the 99th percentile. I was prescribed a dosage of meds that they would give someone the size of Lebron James, literally the maximum dosage. What it did to my brain is an entirely different story. I was made fun of in high school and college for how erratic my meds made me. I believed the pills would make me feel like a normal person, which I thought was someone who didn’t experience anxiety or depression. But I didn’t feel normal. Whenever I told my doctors that I was having trouble sleeping or that I was anxious, they’d just prescribe new pill after new pill or increase my dosage. I was treated like my brain was the problem, and I needed to take anything I could to be like everyone else. But deep down, I knew something was wrong, and because of that, I was indoctrinated to believe I’d never be normal.
So my conception of the self-help industry was: you’re the problem, so take a pill to make yourself just like everyone else. I was brainwashed to believe that my ADHD was a bad thing. Did you know that it was seen as an evolutionary advantage? Even during the Industrial Revolution, many inventors actually met the criteria for ADHD. I feel like that’s not talked about enough. The system did nothing to help me embrace that I think differently than others. I wasn’t using therapy or pills in a way that gave me the opportunity to evolve or to have healthy coping mechanisms at all.
Eventually, I got sober. I had to time off from college (where I was partying way too much—weed, alcohol, mixed with the prescription pills was a recipe for disaster) and learned how to cope with my ADHD, anxiety, and depression without controlled substances. I didn’t smoke weed or really drink for about a year. I learned how to look internally in order to reacclimate to society without the use of controlled substances, to get back in touch with myself, and to learn how to cope with reality. Between meditation, yoga, and extensive therapy, I began to come into my own. Why weren’t these resources suggested to me before shoving copious amounts of legal meth down my throat?
6. Whenever someone brings up ADHD. It makes it seem like it’s is just an issue of distraction. Wrong! For example, I read 2-3 books a week! I don’t know many people with ADHD can do that. But for me taking clothes out of the dryer & folding them, that’s like climbing Mt. Everest
— Yashar Ali ? (@yashar) February 26, 2019
As time went on, my doctors and I decided that it was okay for me to start indulging in mind altering substances like alcohol and weed again. Last year, my doctor gave me a prescription for Benzos that I use sparingly because I would never want to become dependent on them or go through the brutal withdrawals ever again. I check everything I do over with my doctors. No, seriously, a good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, “How stupid am I going to sound to my shrink once I tell them I did *insert reckless action here*?” So I started using mind altering substances again at my discretion because through the extensive work I’ve done, I now know how to indulge in it without making it a crutch to completely detach from reality.
Without going into the gory details, I went through one of the most difficult times of my life last year. I endured a lot of trauma and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Waking up in the morning and instantly crying is the worst possible feeling, feeling lonely and utterly helpless is heartbreaking, and not feeling safe in your own city and apartment is horrific. I unfortunately turned to alcohol for a month or two because, even though it wasn’t the answer, I thought it was the easy way out. I learned over time that it just made things worse, and I’m glad it didn’t develop into something far more serious.
Over time, I turned to weed instead, and it was actually my saving grace in a lot of ways. Journaling, therapy, yoga, meditation—all that New Age sh*t—works wonders. But if you’re in a position where you need a quick fix or you simply want to expand your consciousness and see things more lightheartedly, weed is incredible.
I first was open with my shrink about how I wanted to switch from Benzos to medicinal weed and he was all for it. I got prescribed with Benzos to take sparingly in the event that I needed a quick fix to calm the f*ck down. I came to find that being in a Klonopin Cloud wasn’t as comfortable as it used to be, and in retrospect, I don’t think it ever was a comfort zone. It was just a way to detach from reality completely and a chemical way to become apathetic. Weed, on the other hand, loosened the vice grip I have on my issues and helped me see things through a more panoramic lens. While I’m still cognizant of my problems, I definitely don’t feel like a zombie like I did with Xanax or Klonopin. My shrink and I are working towards getting me a prescription for weed right now, thank God.
I recently went to L.A., and I was totally shocked by how normalized it was out there. Like, of course I knew it was legal and all that. But when I walked into MedMen, which is one of the most notable dispensary chains, I was totally taken aback by how open they were about the benefits of weed. I was awfully tightly wound about the whole thing because I was in such shock that they were all so open-minded, and it was then when I realized that I had internalized the negative stigma against weed too. The intention behind MedMen, one of the employees said, was to show people that weed use and dispensaries shouldn’t be this clandestine and sketchy thing. It should be the embraced. The place looked like an Apple store, I swear! When I mentioned that to the employee, they said it’s because they want people to know that they embrace the industry and they don’t want them to feel like buying weed should be this uncomfortable, shameful process that you need to be so secretive about by going to one of those shady looking dispensaries with, like, no windows.
I ended up purchasing products from them and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in terms of my psychiatric journey. The products they sold me were way more regulated than the bud I buy from NYU grad students. It was like taking an anti-anxiety medication that helped me take a step back and live more light-heartedly when need be. It was also a form of embracing my ADHD and thinking differently without being hyperaware of conforming to norms or pacing around because I couldn’t sit still to do my work. A lot of people think that weed makes you flighty, loopy, and totally out of it. That can totally be true, but it’s not always the case. For my ADHD, I use it to stop pacing around, keep my anxiety at bay, to calm down, and embrace that I think creatively.
Even before MedMen, I’ve always maintained that weed helped me on a philosophical level, helped expand my consciousness, and look at my life and myself without harsh judgment. A lot of people scoffed at that and saw it as a BS excuse to get high and watch Workaholics. Full disclosure: smoking weed while watching Workaholics is dope, but it’s not the primary way I use it. Now, I definitely believe that it is a form of medicine for me. I did have my struggles in the past with mind altering substances that obviously did more damage than good and I wasn’t instructed on how to use them properly in the first place. But I’m in a place in my life where I can drop a tincture of THC mixed with CBD under my tongue the same way someone can take an Adderall. For the record, I do believe that Adderall can work for some. However, 2 in 3 adults outgrow ADHD, and my doctors told me that I would never be a part of that group.
But it absolutely sucks that people still side-eye something that my doctor and I see as my medication. Although Adderall was horrible for me, you don’t see me judging people for taking it if that’s what their doctors think is best for them. It’s difficult enough that people assume anxiety is just being nervous and that you need to “suck it up,” or that ADHD is just immaturity because I have trouble focusing and staying organized. It’s not like I sit in a corner and cry because things don’t go my way or because I’m nervous. It’s not like I’m all, “Oooooh, look at a shiny red ball!” when I’m writing an essay. It’s not like I’m a lazy, careless bum because it’s a struggle to keep my apartment clean. Those things are tough for me, and it completely worsens my struggles when someone tells me that my afflictions don’t matter and that the way I believe is the healthier route is just an excuse to be lazy and indulge in munchies.
5. People who don’t have ADHD often oversimplify what it means to have ADHD. I don’t blame them, they’re not living with ADHD. But that’s one of the reasons ADHD is so misunderstood because it’s anything but simple. That’s why it’s so hurtful when people jokingly say “squirrel”
— Yashar Ali ? (@yashar) February 26, 2019
I think for the sake of society, we really need to start listening to each other and not only support each others’ differences, but also endeavor to encourage these differences so people can be more open. So the question is: why is society so myopic when it comes to these differences? Why is the immediate answer in the form of a capsule in order to “normalize” them? And if that capsule doesn’t work, why the next best option is another capsule, and another?
Not everyone should function the same way and fit into this mold that society created. A New Age approach helped me embrace my differences instead of stifling them, and marijuana absolutely changed my life for the better too. If it’s not for you, that’s cool. But if it could help someone, but the stigma of being associated with weed use is making them afraid to seek out that option, that’s a problem.