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Overdiagnosis of ADHD

Overdiagnosis of ADHD

The significant increase in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnoses has become a serious cause for concern in recent years. Studies confirmed the suspicion that overdiagnosis of ADHD in children and adolescents is an issue that needs addressing.

Overdiagnosis of ADHD leads to unnecessary treatment for adolescents and children. This treatment often involves medication that comes with side effects. It can also lead to unnecessary stress that affects the person’s quality of life.

What is Overdiagnosis?

Overdiagnosis is a diagnosis of a condition that would have caused problems even if it wouldn’t be diagnosed. Many people don’t have symptoms but go to the doctor anyway and demand screenings for prevention. If the problem appears during the screening, the doctor must diagnose it.

In many cases, the diagnosed condition wouldn’t have caused any symptoms or consequences. However, learning about it and hearing the diagnosis result in stress, frustration, anxiety, and, sometimes, unnecessary treatment.

Overdiagnosis vs. Misdiagnosis

Misdiagnosis involves diagnosing the wrong condition. For example, a person has a bacterial infection, but the doctor diagnoses a viral infection. Since the treatment for these conditions is drastically different, the patient’s condition can worsen.

Overdiagnosis is a correct diagnosis that doesn’t bring any value to the patient. Just the opposite, unnecessary treatment could cause harm.


Overtreatment and overdiagnosis go hand in hand. Overtreatment is a treatment for a condition that wouldn’t have caused any symptoms or problems for the patient if it remained untreated. The main dangers of overtreatment are side effects caused by unnecessary medication.

Why is ADHD Overdiagnosed?

According to CDC, between 2016 and 2019, six million children and adolescents ages 3-17 were diagnosed with ADHD.  Studies show that for individuals with minor symptoms, the downsides of ADHD diagnosis may outweigh the benefits of treatment.  

Common reasons why ADHD is overdiagnosed may include the following:

  • Age – children who are the youngest in their class and demonstrate immature behavior may face an ADHD diagnosis.
  • Cooccurring condition – other conditions could have symptoms that are similar to ADHD. While diagnosing another problem, a doctor may discover ADHD.
  • Ineffective or neglectful parenting – some parenting practices could lead to behavioral problems that children with ADHD may not have faced otherwise.
  • Excessive awareness – increased ADHD awareness causes parents, teachers, and healthcare providers to look for ADHD symptoms. This could cause children and adolescents with minor ADHD symptoms to receive the treatment they don’t require.
  • Improved diagnostics – as doctors gain access to new technologies and research data, it becomes easier to diagnose ADHD with the mildest symptoms.
  • Bias and judgment – some doctors don’t always follow the ever-changing diagnosis criteria and make decisions based on unconscious bias.

More studies need to be done to evaluate the reasons for overdiagnosing ADHD. Choosing care from a qualified provider who uses precise diagnostic criteria and rules out other conditions can decrease the risk of ADHD overdiagnosis.

How Many Adolescents Take ADHD Medication?

The typical treatment for adolescents with ADHD includes:

  • Stimulant medication (around 70% of teenagers diagnosed with ADHD take this type of medication)
  • Behavioral therapy
  • Diet and lifestyle changes

ADHD treatment for adolescents requires an individual approach for each patient. Not all teenagers need medication. Some can battle mild symptoms of ADHD with lifestyle changes and well-chosen behavioral therapy.  

According to CDC, the percentage of children 2- 17 years of age who receive treatment after getting diagnosed with ADHD is:

  • 62% – take medication (considering the number of children diagnosed with ADHD in the United States, this means that 5% of all American children are taking ADHD medication).
  • 47% receive behavioral treatment for ADHD (for children between 2 and 5, the percentage is higher).

Meanwhile, 64% of children diagnosed with ADHD have co-occurring mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders.

Consequences of ADHD Overdiagnosis

The critical adverse consequences associated with overdiagnosis of ADHD include:


Stimulants prescribed for ADHD come with such common side effects as loss of appetite or insomnia. They can also cause stomachaches, headaches, and other symptoms that reduce the person’s quality of life.

If a person has a mild form of ADHD, they may not feel any benefits of taking stimulants.

Anxiety and Stress

Hearing the ADHD diagnosis can be stressful and anxiety-provoking for adolescents and their parents. Finding out that “something is wrong” could cause a person to worry extensively and try to find new symptoms of the diagnosed condition.

This can interfere with an adolescent’s everyday life and make it hard to study and socialize. Meanwhile, when the course of treatment doesn’t yield any results, the patient can feel confused and upset.

Unnecessary Costs

Unnecessary treatment for ADHD becomes unnecessary expenses for medication, therapy, frequent check-ups, and more. Costs can increase when this treatment doesn’t make the person feel better or causes side effects.  

Problems at School

The stigma accompanying ADHD can cause problems for children and adolescents in school. This, in turn, can contribute to their anxiety and confusion. Eventually, such issues can mount and turn into other mental health conditions.

How to Avoid Overdiagnosis of ADHD

To avoid ADHD misdiagnosis, it’s essential to increase awareness. Parents and adolescents should know that other conditions can cause symptoms similar to ADHD. For example, borderline personality disorder, learning disorder, anxiety, and depression could easily be mistaken for ADHD.

If an adolescent doesn’t have any symptoms of ADHD, diagnosing and treating the condition may not be necessary. However, if symptoms reduce their quality of life, it’s imperative to find a reliable healthcare provider to get a correct diagnosis and arrange treatment.

ADHD Treatment with Massachusetts Center for Adolescent Wellness

Choosing the proper treatment for an adolescent diagnosed with ADHD is the key to achieving fast results, avoiding unnecessary medications, and improving their quality of life.

Massachusetts Center for Adolescent Wellness offers a comprehensive treatment program for adolescents with ADHD. The treatment starts with behavior therapy based on each child’s needs and continues to give them the right tools to lead a fulfilling life. Our goal is to provide high-quality treatment without unnecessary therapies and adverse side effects that may come with them.