ADHD in Women

We Demand Attention on Self-Harm, Intimate Partner Violence, and Substance Abuse Among Women with ADHD

How can we better protect girls and women with ADHD against the unique risks and adverse outcomes that pose a serious threat to their health and wellbeing?

An image of a quote that reads: "Girls and women with undiagnosed ADHD are at double the risk for engaging in self-harm and significantly more likely to attempt suicide." -- Julia Schechter, Ph.D.

What We Know

The lives of girls and women with ADHD are jeopardized by exponentially higher rates of self-harm, suicidality, and intimate partner violence, as compared with their neurotypical counterparts or with neurodivergent boys and men.

“ADHD in girls portends continuing problems through early adulthood that are of substantial magnitude across multiple domains of symptomatology and functional impairment,” write the authors of the Berkeley Girls ADHD Longitudinal Study (BGALS) follow-up study.1 “The sheer range of negative outcomes is noteworthy; the most striking include the high occurrences of suicide attempts and self-injury in the ADHD sample, confined to the childhood-diagnosed combined type.”

What We Know About Self-Harm

“Girls with combined-type ADHD are 2.5 times more likely to engage in non-suicidal self-injuring behavior than are their neurotypical peers, and 3 to 4 times more likely to attempt suicide,” said Stephen Hinshaw, Ph.D., lead author of the BGALS study, in an ADDitude webinar titled, “Girls and Women with ADHD.” It’s important to note, Hinshaw says, that self-harm is a “potent indicator” of future suicide attempts.

This is an arresting statistic, particularly considering how self-harm and suicidality have spiked in adolescent girls in general. The most recent CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) report found that 1 in 10 girls has attempted suicide, and 1 in 3 of girls seriously considered suicide during the past year, which is an increase of nearly 60% from a decade ago.

Research suggests that neurodivergent girls face a significantly higher risk for self-harm than do neurodivergent boys, or neurotypical people of any gender. A 2020 study in European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry found that the rate of self-harm was four times greater in females than it was in males (8.7% vs 2.2%).2  A 2022 ADDitude survey found reports of self-harm among 18% of girls with ADHD versus 9% of boys with ADHD.

The correlation between teen girls with ADHD and self-harm is so strong that a 2021 study published in Child and Adolescent Mental Health proposed that all teen girls treated for self-harming behavior should be screened for ADHD:3 A full 83% of teen patients admitted to the hospital for self-harm were girls, the study found.

Indeed, early diagnosis and treatment of ADHD is critical to mitigating the risk of self-harm. “Girls and women with untreated ADHD are at double the risk for engaging in self-harm and significantly more likely to attempt suicide,” says Julia Schechter, Ph.D., of the Duke Center for Girls and Women with ADHD.

What We Know About Intimate Partner Violence

Low self-esteem, high rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD), and social skill deficits put women and girls with ADHD at heightened risk for intimate partner violence (IPV). A study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology found that: 4

  • Girls with ADHD were five times more likely to be victims of physical intimate partner violence than non-ADHD girls (30% vs. 6%)
  • Greater ADHD symptom severity in childhood was associated with increased risk for physical victimization

“Findings indicate that in young women, childhood ADHD is a specific and important predictor of physically violent victimization in their intimate relationships,” write the authors of the study. “Given the devastating impact of intimate partner violence, additional research on how to empower females with ADHD in their social and romantic relationships is greatly needed.”

What We Know About Substance Use

The connection between SUD and ADHD has been well-established through research. We know that:

  • People with ADHD are three times more likely to develop an SUD then those without5
  • 25% of adults with SUD have ADHD
  • SUD is often more severe in individuals with ADHD7

Among the general population, we know that teen girls are more likely to use substances than are teen boys. According to the CDC’s YRBS:

  • Alcohol: 27% of teen girls reported drinking in the last month vs 19% of boys
  • Vaping: 21% of girls reported vaping in the last month vs 15% of boys
  • Illicit drugs: 15% of girls reported ever using illicit drugs vs 12% of boys
  • Misuse of prescription opioids: 15% of girls reported ever misusing opioids vs 10% of boys

That said, studies on the prevalence of SUD among girls and women with ADHD have resulted in mixed findings. An elevated risk of substance use was found in a large-scale study led by Joseph Biederman, M.D.,8  however no such association was found in the BGALS follow-up.

Most recently, researched at the University of Minnesota conducted a study investigating how ADHD symptoms may influence substance use in women and men, and it found a stronger association between alcohol use and ADHD for young adult women than for young adult men.9

“The current study confirms that ADHD-associated risk for adult substance problems is consistently greater in magnitude for women,” the authors of the study write. “The presence of adult ADHD increases risk for substance problems in women more than men.”

What We Don’t Know

No research exists on the relative efficacy of interventions that may reduce the risks for self-harm, suicidality, intimate partner violence, and substance use among girls and women with ADHD. Without fully understanding where these threats begin and how they escalate, we cannot devise and adjust solutions.

The BGALS follow-up study found elevated risks of self-harm and suicidality only among girls with combined-type ADHD, and not among those with inattentive symptoms alone, which leads researchers to speculate that impulsivity is associated with higher risk. Researchers also posit that psychosocial factors, such as the teen’s environment, contribute to the likelihood of self-harm. Longitudinal research is needed, however, to confirm this.

“What are the transition points — psychologically, family or school-related, community-wide — that predict impairment vs. resilience for girls with ADHD as they transition through adolescence to adulthood?” asks Hinshaw. “What are the strategies and supports that teen girls and women with ADHD find most helpful in self-advocacy and thriving?”

In the British Journal of Psychiatry,10 Hinshaw and doctoral student Sinclaire O’Grady call for longitudinal research on long-term correlated outcomes, such as the development of borderline personality disorder, as well as research into the intergenerational transmission of risk for negative outcomes in the children of women with ADHD.

Further research is needed to answer the following questions:

  • What are the specific predictors and mediators of the high risk for self-harm in girls and women with ADHD?
  • Does screening self-harming teens for ADHD reduce the occurrence of self-harm?
  • What, exactly, makes early adulthood a time of heightened risk for substance use issues, specifically for women with ADHD?
  • What are the impacts of ADHD treatment on intimate partner violence victimization?
  • What psychosocial interventions, specific to girls and women with ADHD, may mitigate risk of intimate partner violence victimization?

Why It Matters

Researching suicidality, self-harm, intimate partner violence, and substance abuse among women with ADHD will, quite literally, save lives.

A study led by Russell Barkley, Ph.D., published in the Journal of Attention Disorders, found that life expectancy was 13 years lower for patients with combined-type ADHD diagnosed in childhood and with persistent symptoms, relative to control children.11

However, because of the severely limited number of females in the study, the findings are largely not relevant. No major study has investigated the impact of ADHD on life expectancy specifically in women.

With dramatically higher rates of self-harm and suicidality, as well as intimate partner violence, this research is desperately needed to protect women from bodily harm, as well as devastating emotional consequences.

What ADDitude Readers Tell Us

Feelings of loneliness, RSD, emotional dysregulation, anxiety, and low self-worth exert a crushing emotional burden — and prompt some readers to harm themselves, to abuse substances, and to maintain toxic relationships.

“I made poor choices that led to abuse,” says Debs, an ADDitude reader in the United Kingdom. “I’ve taken substances to make the pain less, and I have self-harmed to try to take away the pain.”

“The inner turmoil just seems to get louder and louder and more difficult to turn down, which leads to unhealthy ways of coping like self-harm to help manage the stress,” shares Laura, an ADDitude reader in Texas.

“I abuse cannabis,” explains ADDitude reader Elizabeth, in the United Kingdom.

“Sometimes I feel worthless and want to self-harm because of RSD, assuming I’m not loved by my loved ones.”

“I get myself in relationships that aren’t good for me as I’m just happy that somebody finally loves me despite my flaws,” explains ADDitude reader Annika in Germany. “Self-harm comes into play when I feel like a failure because the relationship is rocky, and I get invalidated or criticized.”

“I constantly feel like I’m failing, which makes the thoughts about self-harm pop up often, although I haven’t given in to those for a while now,” says Lizzy in the Netherlands.

“I drink a lot right now,” says Nicole, an ADDitude reader in Washington. “I know it is unhealthy, but it is the only way for me to cope.”

“I have a history of self-harm, which was sometimes brought on my intense feelings of worthlessness and loneliness,” shares an anonymous ADDitude reader.

What ADHD Experts Say

The long-term ravages of underdiagnosed and undertreated ADHD in women are dire — a matter of life and death in some cases. To develop effective interventions, research is essential.

“There is a critical need for studies into how increasing degrees of isolation, shame, and despair lead to self-harm and earlier mortality, exploring the relationships to early chronic trauma, impulsivity, poor self-care,” says Ellen Littman, Ph.D. “Research must respond to outcomes signaling such a significant public health crisis.”

“Too little is known about later-adult outcomes of females with ADHD,” write Hinshaw and O’Grady. “Overall, we contend that the extraordinarily high risk for self-harm incurred by girls with ADHD as they mature requires a shift in clinical perspective.”

“Girls and women with untreated or undertreated ADHD — or those who have been misdiagnosed with other conditions — have been put at higher risk for an array of negative outcomes including higher rates of depression and anxiety, intimate partner victimization, and risky sexual behaviors resulting in teen and unplanned pregnancies,” says Schechter. “Research specifically devoted to girls and women with ADHD is not only an issue of equity but a life-or-death issue for some girls and women.”

Self Harm & Intimate Partner Violence: Related Resources

  • Suicide &Crisis Lifeline: Call or Text 988
  • National Sexual Assault Helpline: 1-800-656-HOPE
  • National Substance Abuse Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP
  • Stop Bullying

Related Reading

We Demand Attention: A Call for Greater Research on ADHD in Women

Intro: Top 10 Research Priorities

  1. Sex Difference in ADHD
  2. The Health Consequences of Delayed ADHD Diagnoses on Women
  3. How Hormonal Changes Impact ADHD Symptoms in Women
  4. How Perimenopause and Menopause Impact ADHD Symptoms, and Vice Versa
  5. The Elevated Risk for PMDD and PPD Among Women with ADHD
  6. The Safety and Efficacy of ADHD Medication Use During Pregnancy and While Nursing
  7. How ADHD Medication Adjustments During the Monthly Menstrual Cycle Could Improve Outcomes for Women
  8. The Long-Term and Short-Term Implications of Hormonal Birth Control and Hormone-Replacement Therapy Use Among Women with ADHD
  9. How and Why Comorbid Conditions Like Anxiety, Depression, and Eating Disorders Uniquely Impact Women with ADHD
  10. Early Indicators of Self-Harm, Partner Violence, and Substance Abuse Among Girls and Women with ADHD


1 SP, Owens EB, Zalecki C, Huggins SP, Montenegro-Nevado AJ, Schrodek E, Swanson EN. Prospective follow-up of girls with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder into early adulthood: continuing impairment includes elevated risk for suicide attempts and self-injury. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2012 Dec;80(6):1041-1051. doi: 10.1037/a0029451. Epub 2012 Aug 13. PMID: 22889337; PMCID: PMC3543865.

2 Ohlis, A., Bjureberg, J., Lichtenstein, P. et al. Comparison of suicide risk and other outcomes among boys and girls who self-harm. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry 29, 1741–1746 (2020).

3 Ward JH, Curran S. Self-harm as the first presentation of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in adolescents. Child Adolesc Ment Health. 2021 Nov;26(4):303-309. doi: 10.1111/camh.12471. Epub 2021 May 3. PMID: 33939246.

4 Guendelman MD, Ahmad S, Meza JI, Owens EB, Hinshaw SP. Childhood Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder Predicts Intimate Partner Victimization in Young Women. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 2016 Jan;44(1):155-66. doi: 10.1007/s10802-015-9984-z. PMID: 25663589; PMCID: PMC4531111.

5 Wilens T. E. (2004). Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and the substance use disorders: the nature of the relationship, subtypes at risk, and treatment issues. The Psychiatric clinics of North America, 27(2), 283–301.

6 Charach, A., Yeung, E., Climans, T., & Lillie, E. (2011). Childhood attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and future substance use disorders: comparative meta-analyses. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 50(1), 9–21.

7 Wilens, T. E., & Morrison, N. R. (2011). The intersection of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and substance abuse. Current opinion in psychiatry, 24(4), 280–285.

8 Biederman J, Monuteaux MC, Mick E, Spencer T, Wilens TE, Klein KL, Price JE, Faraone SV. Psychopathology in females with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: a controlled, five-year prospective study. Biol Psychiatry. 2006 Nov 15;60(10):1098-105. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2006.02.031. Epub 2006 May 19. PMID: 16712802.

9 Elkins IJ, Saunders GRB, Malone SM, Wilson S, McGue M, Iacono WG. Differential implications of persistent, remitted, and late-onset ADHD symptoms for substance abuse in women and men: A twin study from ages 11 to 24. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2020 Jul 1;212:107947. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2020.107947. Epub 2020 Feb 27. PMID: 32444170; PMCID: PMC7293951.

10 O’Grady SM, Hinshaw SP. Long-term outcomes of females with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder: increased risk for self-harm. Br J Psychiatry. 2021 Jan;218(1):4-6. doi: 10.1192/bjp.2020.153. PMID: 33019955; PMCID: PMC7867565.

11 Barkley, R. A., & Fischer, M. (2019). Hyperactive Child Syndrome and Estimated Life Expectancy at Young Adult Follow-Up: The Role of ADHD Persistence and Other Potential Predictors. Journal of Attention Disorders, 23(9), 907-923.