Stories about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, have been having a resurgence in the social media zeitgeist the past several years, and it may be leading more people to seek out diagnosis for the condition.
“A lot of my patients would hold up their phone to the camera and be like, ‘Here’s this video that I saw on TikTok and this is why I have ADHD,’” said Dr. Sasha Hamdani. She is a psychiatrist and ADHD specialist who also is a content creator about the condition with more than 800,000 followers on TikTok.
Hamdani estimates that about 50% of patients who inquire about the condition actually yield an ADHD diagnosis.
ADHD diagnoses and prescriptions have been increasing across all age groups since before the days of social media. The number of ADHD diagnoses in 2010 were almost five times what they were in 1999. And between 2007 and 2016, the number of diagnoses of ADHD in adults more than doubled.
“Certainly the effects of the pandemic have been clear in terms of increasing stress, but also the advent of telehealth has brought more access to more people and brought more people into treatment,” said Dr. Lenard Adler, the director of the adult ADHD program at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine. “I don’t think we have a clear answer, but certainly the number of prescriptions of ADHD medications have gone up in the last several years.”
Social media content can be a problematic source for health care information. One media analysis of popular TikTok videos found that roughly half of the videos sampled contained misleading or potential misinformation.
“I think increased awareness is always what I would call a double-edged sword,” said Dr. Anthony Yeung, a psychiatrist at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, British Columbia, and one of the authors of the study. “I think we’ve definitely moved into an area of talking about mental health that’s really positive. There’s much less stigma.”
“The other side of this double-edged sword, though, is sometimes if we’re talking about mental health symptoms or diagnoses, we then run the risk of perhaps misconstruing again things that are on the spectrum of normal as being pathological,” Yeung said.
This influx in people seeking out treatment all at once can cause a problem of supply and demand.
“What I see in my practice is that we have a six-month waiting list to get in. And we’re incredibly busy,” Adler said. “Some of that’s from the pandemic, but I think there’s a general need for services at this point.”
Some people may start self-diagnosing if they are unable to access treatment, which can come at a cost.
“One of the challenges with self-diagnosis is that it may cause increased anxiety for individuals,” said Yeung. “When people talk about symptoms online, sometimes those symptoms might actually not necessarily be representative of a certain illness or disorder, but it might be talked about in such a way that anyone watching that video might actually see it as such and think they have that diagnosis.”
This bottleneck doesn’t just apply to doctors visits. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in October that there was a shortage of both the brand name and generic form of Adderall in the U.S.
“Logistically, it’s been a nightmare for patients and providers,” Hamdani said. ”[Stimulant medications] are so highly controlled, you can’t just transfer it [to a different pharmacy]. You have to cancel a script. You have to then go find another pharmacy that has it. By that time, it might not be filled because other people have filled it there. It’s a lot of logistical shifting and work on that front. And that’s extremely frustrating for the patient.”