ADHD and depression are both common and share some symptoms. Is there a link between the two?

Woman looking at her phone at sunset by the oceanShare on Pinterest
Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images

If you feel tired and unfocused, it can be difficult to tell whether depression or ADHD is the cause. You may even have a diagnosis for one condition but wonder if there’s more to the story.

It turns out that you can have both ADHD and depression at the same time. In fact, many people do.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder involving brain chemistry differences that affect the way you think and act.

Doctors began diagnosing children with ADHD in the 1930s. Since then, they’ve learned to recognize the condition in adults as well.

Although ADHD is generally thought of as beginning in childhood, some people who have received the diagnosis in adulthood report no symptoms from their younger years.

Some adults who received an ADHD diagnosis in childhood may no longer have symptoms, while others may continue to experience symptoms well into adulthood.

ADHD is common. If you or someone you know has this condition, chances are you know others who do as well.

Here are some ADHD statistics from a 2017 research review:

  • Prevalence of childhood ADHD: 4–7%
  • Childhood ADHD that continues into adulthood: 15–65%
  • General population with ADHD: 2.5%

Symptoms of ADHD

If you have ADHD, you may find it hard to concentrate on things that don’t interest you. Completing a task you find boring may seem exhausting, like it takes more energy than you’ll ever have.

You may forget things as soon as you hear them. Your house may be cluttered with to-do items left out, because if you put them away you’ll forget about them.

Maybe you regularly interrupt people when they talk, because you just can’t wait to say what’s on your mind. Or your friends and family members have asked you not to walk away while they’re still talking.

Some symptoms are different in adults than in children. For example, a child with ADHD may run and climb at inappropriate times, while an adult with ADHD may be likely to engage in behaviors that come with a chance of harm or injury, such as gambling or reckless driving.

ADHD has three different types:

  • combined type
  • hyperactive-impulsive type
  • inattentive type (formerly called “ADD”)

Combined type is the most common and has symptoms from both the hyperactive-impulsive and inattentive types.

Hyperactive-impulsive symptoms include:

  • regularly fidgeting and squirming
  • having trouble staying seated
  • engaging in noisy play, running, and climbing at inappropriate times
  • talking more than others, often out of turn
  • interrupting others or blurting things out
  • very often being on the go or feeling a need to move

Inattentive symptoms include:

  • making careless mistakes or missing details
  • having trouble paying attention, listening, or staying on task
  • needing repetition, reminders, and extra help to follow instructions
  • being forgetful or disorganized and frequently losing things
  • avoiding difficult tasks

If you’re living with depression, you’re one of 208 million people worldwide who share this experience.

Clinical depression is more than just the sadness caused by an unwanted situation like the loss of a job or relationship. If you’ve grieved a loss and then recovered, that experience wasn’t depression.

True depression is a force that can rob you of your ability to function. It may leave you no longer interested in the things you used to enjoy, and may make finding the will to get through each day feel overwhelming.

There are several types of depression:

  • Major depressive disorder (MDD): depressed mood for at least 2 weeks that can fade and return over time in the form of remissions, recoveries, relapses, and recurrences
  • Postpartum depression: severe depression and changes in mood after giving birth
  • Seasonal affective disorder: depression related to changing seasons that typically gets worse in the months with less sunlight
  • Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder: frequent and severe temper outbursts experienced by children and young adults
  • Persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia): depression for most of the day, with more depressed days than happy ones, for at least 2 years
  • Premenstrual dysphoric disorder: severe depression symptoms some people experience about 1 week before they menstruate
  • Bipolar disorder depression: the episodes of depression that offset manic phases experienced by people with bipolar disorder

Symptoms of depression

Depression can feel overwhelming when its symptoms rob you of the energy or the will to seek treatment. Common symptoms include:

  • persistent sadness and hopelessness
  • loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • difficulties with concentration, self-care, and task completion
  • irritability
  • changes in sleep patterns and appetite
  • anxiety
  • body aches
  • thoughts of self-harm or suicide

An estimated 80% of adults with ADHD also have another type of psychiatric disorder. Most of these accompanying conditions fall into one of three categories:

  • mood and anxiety disorders
  • substance use disorders
  • personality disorders

A 2015 follow-up to the Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety (2008–2011) demonstrated a link between ADHD and depression. As depression worsened, the percentage of people experiencing ADHD symptoms increased:

  • 0.4% in people without depression (the control group)
  • 5.7% in participants with remitted major depressive disorder (MDD)
  • 22.1% in those with current MDD

Overlapping symptoms

Sometimes the same symptoms can occur in ADHD and depression, although they may have different causes.

For example, low motivation is a shared symptom between ADHD and depression. People with ADHD can lose motivation because issues with focus and attention may make tasks too difficult. Meanwhile, people experiencing depression may not feel motivated because they think most things are pointless.

Other shared symptoms include:

  • fatigue
  • trouble with focus and concentration
  • sleep disruption
  • restlessness
  • boredom

Sometimes comorbid conditions — conditions that occur together — can happen for seemingly no reason. Other times, there are risk factors you can identify.

Genetic differences

A 2015 study involving 1,289 adults assessed three factors common in ADHD and depression:

  • impulsivity
  • inattention
  • mood instability

The researchers discovered that the dopamine transporter gene DAT1 may be the reason for mood instability in ADHD and depression.

Being female

A 2012 review of publications over a 10-year span revealed increased depression with ADHD in females.

It’s thought that because females have the inattentive type of ADHD more often than the hyperactive/impulsive type, they receive diagnoses less often. Without diagnoses they may miss out on treatment, which can lead to depression.

Early-onset ADHD

Social and academic difficulties in childhood may explain the connection between early ADHD diagnosis and depression in adolescence.

A 2020 study with 2,950 participants suggested a link between childhood ADHD and depression symptoms that were clinically significant by 17.5 years of age.

Mother’s mental health

Maternal depression during pregnancy can increase the chance of ADHD in children. Research indicates that the timeline matters: Maternal depression at gestational week 20 can increase child inattention, and at weeks 18 and 32 it can increase hyperactivity as well as inattention.

A 2011 research review summarized various effects maternal depression can have on children, including behavioral, emotional, and attentional problems.

It’s theorized that hormone and brain chemistry differences in pregnant women experiencing depression can cause artery resistance that limits blood flow to the fetus. This means less oxygen and fewer nutrients, which can lead to conditions like depression and ADHD in the child.

Untreated ADHD

ADHD symptoms left untreated can increase the possibility of depression.

A 2016 study involving 38,752 participants with an ADHD diagnosis revealed that treatment with medication for ADHD reduced the chances of long-term and concurrent depression.

You can treat two conditions by starting with the one that has the greater impact on your daily functioning. Your doctor can assess your symptoms and make a recommendation.

If your ADHD is causing your depression, treatment for ADHD might improve both conditions.

You may want to try multiple treatments at the same time, such as medication, therapy, and a new exercise regimen. Still, it’s best to discuss your options with your treatment team to figure out an individualized plan that works for you.

Medication

Medication for both ADHD and depression works by changing your brain chemistry. Each medication works in a slightly different way or affects a different neurotransmitter.

ADHD medications are typically either stimulants, like methylphenidate (Concerta), or non-stimulants, like atomoxetine (Strattera).

Meanwhile, doctors treat depression with antidepressant medications like sertraline (Zoloft) and duloxetine (Cymbalta). Sometimes antidepressant medication can be used to treat ADHD.

Therapy

Therapy is another treatment option for both ADHD and depression.

Behavioral therapy helps you identify behaviors that you want to change and develop strategies to change them. Cognitive therapy teaches you how to choose more positive thoughts to cause happier emotions.

Finally, cognitive behavioral therapy combines the two by teaching you how to choose thoughts that drive both emotions and behaviors.

Lifestyle

Lifestyle adjustments can reduce symptoms of both ADHD and depression.

If your depression is strong enough to make lifestyle changes difficult, you may want to start your treatment with medication.

Otherwise, you may want to try self-care strategies such as:

  • dietary changes
  • daily exercise
  • a consistent sleep schedule
  • stress-reduction strategies
  • healthy social connections
  • support groups

ADHD and depression can make daily life more complicated and exhausting, but both conditions are treatable.

Early treatment of ADHD can help lower the chance of developing depression. If your child has an ADHD diagnosis, it may be a good idea to review treatment options now even though a wait-and-see approach may be tempting.

If you’ve been dealing with depression and ADHD, you might need only one type of medication, even with two diagnoses. Treating ADHD can alleviate depression, and sometimes antidepressants are used to treat ADHD. Still, it’s important to discuss your options with your treatment team to determine the right approach for your situation.

Lifestyle changes can help with both conditions, too, as can therapy. Managing ADHD and depression may feel like a challenge some days, but you have many options for treatment and support.