The majority of individuals with ADHD have one or more comorbid disorders. Comorbidity is a technical (and admittedly, not very cheerful) word for ‘co-occuring’, meaning that multiple disorders or conditions are present at the same time. Anxiety and depression are the most prevalent conditions that co-occur with ADHD.
Researchers and clinicians want to better understand this comorbidity in ADHD. Does having ADHD increase your risk of developing other conditions? Is there a biolgical mechanism that underlies both ADHD and other conditions? Or are symptoms of ADHD actually broader than the attentional, hyperactivity and impulsivity problems defined by the DSM/ICD, and therefore also linked to other conditions? Or all of the above?
Going with the third option (which by no means excludes the alternatives), clinicians have noticed that many individuals with ADHD experience symptoms that are not specific to ADHD, but are also often seen in other psychiatric conditions. You could call these symptoms ‘mainstream’, or ‘common’ mental health problems. Some examples that are often experienced by those with ADHD are emotional instability, sleep problems, low self-esteem, distractibility and concentration problems, and mental restlesnesss or excessive mind wandering.
Understanding these comorbidities better is important, because often one condition can hide the ‘true’ underlying condition. For instance, a person with ADHD who experiences many symptoms that are also characteristic of anxiety (i.e. low self-esteem, excessive mind-wandering, sleep problems, avoiding difficult situations). In such a case, the person could receive treatment for anxiety problems, while he or she is actually needing treatment for ADHD.
To distinguish between these conditions better, we need to find out more about these common symptoms. Being distracted can have many different causes and can happen in many different situations. For instance: are you distracted due to pervasive negative thoughts, because the task you’re doing is boring, or because you’re thinking of many related things and drift off to new ideas?
To learn more about the nature of these symptoms, researchers have given mobile apps or smartwatches to participants with ADHD. Several times a day, the watch buzzes and the app prompts a question that the person has to give answer to immediately. Questions can for instance be: How are you feeling right now? Have good/bad things happend to you in the last hour? How much has this affectd you? Were you concentrating on a task or where you distracted? Where you tinking about something (un)pleasant? etc. This method called ‘experience sampling’ can give very valuable information about someone’s symptoms. When combining the information from a lot of individuals, this can also identify differences between different disorders, that were not really known before.
If you want to learn more about this topic, you can watch this webinar by professor Philip Asherson from King’s College London. He explains the common mental health symptoms of ADHD in more detail, and gives examples from his research, also using experience sampling.
This blog is based on the webinar by Philip Asherson “ADHD in the mainstream” that was created as part of the CoCA project. The CoCA project investigates comorbid conditons of ADHD: http://www.coca-project.eu.