Diagnosing Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can be a challenge because many of its signs may also be present in several other mental health conditions. To further complicate things, a number of common ADHD symptoms might be considered “normal” behaviors, at least when seen in moderation. That said, if you’re asking yourself how to diagnose ADHD, you’ve probably already arrived at a point where you know that something is affecting you, or your child’s, life.
You can find a lot written on casual internet sites about how to deal with ADHD, and most people you know have opinions about the topic, but it’s important to reach out to a mental health professional if you’re looking for how to get an ADHD diagnosis. It’s a good idea to take a list of symptoms to your appointment with you, so you can discuss all your concerns from the start. Never try to self-diagnose ADHD (or any other mental health condition).
Read on to learn everything you need to know about diagnosing ADHD.
How is ADHD Diagnosed?
The journey to an ADHD evaluation and diagnosis (or, on the flip side, to determining that ADHD is not at play) starts with a visit to a medical professional. This might be a psychiatrist, a pediatrician, a psychologist, or an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). Seeking out a medical professional with experience in identifying and treating ADHD is always smart and can help ensure you get an accurate diagnosis.
The initial consultation will generally involve some or all of the following:
- Clinical interview
- Bloodwork to rule out other possible conditions
- Review of medical history
- Discussion with your family members (this may not be relevant if you’re an adult)
- Completing and reviewing normed rating scales by caregivers, family, teachers, etc.
Unfortunately, there isn’t just one single test a doctor can perform to definitively confirm someone has ADHD. The process might take some time, but if you’re struggling, it will be well worth it to get started on the path toward a treatment plan. Although there is no “cure” for ADHD, there are several very successful ways to treat it.
Diagnosing ADHD in adults can be somewhat more challenging than it is for children. Often adults will notice symptoms like depression or anxiety before they consider their impulsiveness and/or inattention. This can be in part because adults may have had symptoms most of their lives but learned incredible coping skills to survive.
When determining how to diagnose ADHD in adults, clinicians will typically look at someone’s life issues in a broad sense, rather than focusing solely on a single symptom that brought them to the appointment.
DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for ADHD
The first step any doctor or medical professional will take in diagnosing ADHD is accessing the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).
The diagnostic criteria presented there helps identify mental health conditions using an accurate, consistent guide. To diagnose ADHD, children aged 12 and younger must show 6 of the 9 criteria; adults must exhibit 5. For adults and children alike, symptoms must be present for 6 months or longer and interfere with an ability to maintain normal daily function.
Identifying signs of ADHD
While it’s easy to find those do I have ADHD quizzes on the internet, you shouldn’t rely on these to gauge whether you or your child has ADHD. Trained medical professionals can identify the signs of this condition and differentiate them from behavioral problems or inattentive symptoms of another condition.
The interview phase of an ADHD treatment plan is one of the most important, and since this process doesn’t rely solely on simple “yes or no” questions that would be easy to evaluate or score, it takes a trained eye to interpret them.
However, having said that, it’s still important to be aware of some of the signs of ADHD if you suspect you or your child may have it. Some of the things to look out for include:
- Chronic inability to focus and concentrate on tasks
- Trouble organizing and prioritizing tasks
- Dramatic mood swings
- Low frustration tolerance
- Poor time management skills
- Trouble dealing with stress
We should note that just because someone has some of the above signs doesn’t necessarily mean they have ADHD. This is why looking at the context of behaviors to make a determination is necessary.
“Understanding the symptoms of ADHD is important to figure out if someone needs to be further evaluated by a professional for ADHD. If there’s a suspicion that it may be possible, consider the symptoms that are concerning and look to see if a medical professional has self-assessments to gauge the possibility. It’s important that an internet search isn’t the only form of identifying symptoms of ADHD.”Talkspace therapist Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC
Who Can Diagnose ADHD?
As we’ve already noted, only a medical professional is qualified to diagnose ADHD, even though it’s a common condition that’s casually discussed and well-known by almost everyone today. A mental health expert can make a final diagnosis and rule anything else out before coming up with an ADHD treatment plan.
The doctor or trained professional you see will also want to determine if any comorbid conditions exist, like anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), or depression — all of which are common with ADHD and can only be assessed by a professional.
What to Do if You Get Diagnosed with ADHD
The good news is there are effective treatments for ADHD. Some treatment plans include medication; other methods do not. Working with a mental health professional or team can substantially increase the effectiveness of a given treatment plan. If you’re concerned, schedule an appointment with someone who has experience treating ADHD.
“Once a diagnosis has been made, it’s important to go over the options available to help manage the symptoms of ADHD. Medication is often a helpful aid in managing some of the symptoms of ADHD, but it shouldn’t be the only option. Working with a mental health professional who specializes in ADHD (childhood and adult) will be important. Not all ADHD diagnoses need medication.”Talkspace therapist Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC
Some of the effective types of therapy for ADHD include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This type of therapy focuses on teaching you skills that help you better manage your symptoms. It also helps you learn to identify, then transform negative thoughts into positive ones.
- Family or relationship counseling: ADHD often affects the families of the individual who’s diagnosed. This can be true whether you’re seeking how to diagnose ADHD in adults or ADHD in children. Family counseling helps the family unit improve communication skills, learn how to react to symptoms, and better understand what loved ones are going through.
When ADHD medication is used, some of the prescription drugs approved for treating ADHD symptoms include:
- Stimulants: These are the most commonly-prescribed medications for ADHD. Stimulants work by helping you focus through increasing the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain.
- Non-stimulants: While they might take longer to work, non-stimulants may be used if stimulants aren’t effective. They might be preferred by some because the side effects can be minimal, and there is less risk of abuse and/or addiction. Non-stimulants work by increasing norepinephrine levels in your brain. This can help with executive functioning and emotional stability. It might also be effective in decreasing distractibility and impulsiveness.
- Antidepressants: Antidepressants are sometimes used to treat ADHD off-label. It’s important to point out that the use of antidepressants for ADHD has been associated with a higher risk of suicide in some people. Occasionally antidepressants will be used in conjunction with other types of ADHD medication specifically to treat symptoms of depression that commonly occurs comorbidly with ADHD.
It can take time to find the medication or combination of medications that works best to treat different types of ADHD, as everyone is unique. It’s also important to stress that not all treatment plans for ADHD include medication, and that when medication is suggested, it’s generally most effective when used in conjunction with counseling.
Seek Professional Help with Talkspace
As previously discussed above, the most important step if you’re asking yourself how to diagnose ADHD is making an appointment with a mental health professional who specializes in treating this condition. While diagnosing ADHD in adults and children is a process, it’s well worth the wait if it means getting a diagnosis and treatment plan in place that can change the course of your life.
When symptoms of ADHD are disrupting or affecting your quality of life, it’s time to make that appointment. Your primary care physician can make a recommendation, or you can take the first steps by reaching out to a therapist directly or through an online platform, like Talkspace, to get help.
Talkspace is therapy unlike any other. By offering convenient, affordable, and specialized online therapy that’s tailored to you, your needs, and your condition, Talkspace can be instrumental in getting the help you need.