Black Women Can Be Diagnosed With ADHD, Too

Photo-Illustration: Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Who gets to be diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and who gets left out? You can probably guess the answer. A 2014 study by Paul L. Morgan, Ph.D., director of the Center of Educational Disparities Research at Penn State, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry found that, among kindergarteners in the United States, Black children are 70 percent less likely to receive an official ADHD diagnosis than their white classmates. Fast-forward to high school, specifically tenth grade, and white children are roughly twice as likely to have already received an ADHD diagnosis (and subsequent treatment) than their Black classmates, who are more likely to be disciplinarily removed from their classrooms for having “emotional disturbances.”

As they grow up, Black women face the pressures of the “Superwoman Schema,” which can heighten stress and make it difficult to consider, assess, and treat mental-health conditions. Similarly, Black women are often culturally associated with strength, pressured to be “strong” in every single situation, even if it means putting themselves second. Because when a Black woman faces adversity, society expects her to handle her own problems while also nurturing others. Any sign of frustration or sadness expressed by a Black woman is deemed as weak, depriving her of her ability to be vulnerable. “Society constantly characterizes us as strong and as the one to have to save the day,” Juliann King, LMHC and adjunct instructor, tells me. “They expect us to be the fixer and the caretaker, so a lot of Black women take on that pressure, which can lead to burnout and other mental-health challenges.”

According to King, many Black women refrain from seeking mental-health support because they do not want to appear as weak or lazy, often waiting until their mental health has severely affected their ability to manage independently to receive treatment. “Our suffering is dismissed as character flaws or something being wrong with us versus symptoms of a deeper issue that can be addressed and treated,” King says. “We don’t have to wait until things feel too hard to manage before seeking help. We are allowed to and deserve to seek and receive adequate care to help get back to ourselves. We deserve healing, peace and ease.”

TikToks with hashtags varying from #ADHD to #ADHDProblems garner billions of combined views across the platform — the majority of the most-viewed videos posted by white creators. Over the last year, however, Black women have begun creating safe spaces to discuss their own experiences with ADHD on TikTok, where#ADHDinBlackWomen has 1 million views and counting, alongside relatable videos on being neurodivergent in academic spaces, racial bias in the medical field, and what it’s like to complete seemingly “easy” tasks, like cleaning, with ADHD.

Below, three Black women tell the Cut, in their words, what it’s like to live with ADHD (and, in one case, what it’s like to live with thinking you have ADHD), why it took so many years to consider the possibility and be diagnosed, and how they are reclaiming their power over the condition.

Sharée Yveliz, 30, poet and ADHD advocate in Florida

It was the videos on TikTok that brought the possibility of having ADHD to my attention. Watching content creators, especially women of color, post and talk about their ADHD experiences — I noticed, A lot of this sounds like me and the little things I do, like being hypersensitive to texture.

Growing up, I remember feeling unheard, but now as an adult, everything clicks. For example, I don’t like water. Like when people flick water at you? That brings me to pure rage; I do not like to be wet. Even doing dishes, which as a young girl in a Black Dominican culture was difficult. My family would have to bribe me to wash the dishes.

I sometimes go through ADHD paralysis where I’m thinking of all the steps that it takes to do something, so I’m stuck in place. My mind is going one thousand miles per hour. For example, when I’m thinking about food, I’m thinking I’ve got to get up and put some clothes on. Not only do I have to put on some clothes, I just have to get up. That’s the first step. Then I’ve got to put on clothes, I’ve got to go downstairs to check the refrigerator. Now I’m thinking if I want to actually go through the process of cooking anything. If it takes too many steps, I will legit come right back upstairs and eat nothing for hours because I burned out from ADHD paralysis. Sometimes I couldn’t even get off the edge of the bed; if anyone else saw it, they would say I’m just lazy. They wouldn’t understand everything that just went on in my brain and that now I’m frozen in time.

I brought it to my therapist’s attention; I wanted an assessment to dig into this. My therapist said,  “If you would have never asked, I never would have thought that you had ADHD, I would just think you have anxiety and depression.” But looking at my history as a child, it makes a lot of sense.

ADHD looks so different for everyone else, especially girls, especially women as adults, especially people of color — than it does for just white males. I’m extra-feminine, and oftentimes feminine-presenting people aren’t associated with having ADHD. When I would say I had ADHD to people, they’d be like, “Oh, but you’re not like my nephew, or you’re not like this person I know, you’re just a chatty Cathy.” But in reality, it’s ADHD, it’s my brain. A lot of us aren’t bouncing off the walls and are super-hyperactive — you could have a more calm demeanor, you can be a lot more shy.

With this in mind, I knew getting diagnosed would give me extreme validation, and I wanted my therapist to help me figure out if what these TikTok creators and these videos on ADHD I watched fit me. There’s an assessment questionnaire that my therapist did. I can’t remember the questions to save my life, except for one of them, which I thought was pretty funny: “Do you interrupt people?” and I was like, “Girl, you know I do.” The following week, we discussed my family history more in depth and reviewed past files from previous sessions to see how it compares to my current answers. From there, we were able to come up with a diagnosis; she told me that I was on the lower end of the ADHD spectrum. There’s this whole negative stigma around getting diagnosed for ADHD, but who cares about what anybody else has to say? Just do it. This diagnosis is one of the best things that has happened to me and all I did was ask.

Tiana Black, 28, graduate student studying social work in New York City

As a kid, school came relatively easy, but I definitely tied it to my worth — I was a front-row student who got mostly A’s and B’s. Then, in college, I had moments where I couldn’t focus and would easily forget things. I couldn’t keep track of things unless I wrote them down. I just figured I was stressed, and I’d been diagnosed with depression at the time, so I just pushed it away.

There’s a lot of stuff in my brain, a lot of activity. I genuinely want to do well, so when I can’t focus and I’m sitting in front of the computer to do a task and I can’t — I’m grabbing my phone and telling myself, “Okay, ten more minutes on the phone, and I’ll get back to it,” and I don’t — it’s followed by a cycle of guilt, effort, and failure, and it’s really, really exhausting. There is this sense of self-doubt that contributes to the cycle of ADHD where you question which parts of your inability to focus at work or school stem from ADHD and which parts actually come from yourself and your work ethic. The more time you spend not knowing, the more torturous it feels.

I’ve seen so many people of color struggling with ADHD and have no idea because society has taught us to be as much as we can be all the time. We can succeed, but we have to do twice as much to get half of what others get. We’re always in this moment of like, work hard, work hard, work hard, work hard. And so you don’t think there’s anything wrong, you just think you’re supposed to be doing this, we’re conditioned to be in such a way.

I started grad school a couple months ago, and this is when I became more clear of the symptoms because I’m under more stress. I remember telling my roommate, “Something’s wrong, I feel like something’s missing.” It started showing up in small ways, like forgetting the remote so many times within 30 minutes. As soon as I find it, I remember that I constantly placed it here for a reason, and then I still lose it. Another thing is, I have to write things down or things are not going to happen. There’s a lot of stuff in my brain, a lot of activity. Then I started seeing stuff on Instagram about ADHD.

I did a quick online self-assessment quiz, where I was asked how frequently I struggle with focusing on daily tasks — from “never” to “very often” — and it said I most likely had ADHD. I spoke to my therapist and said I wanted to make an appointment with an ADHD specialist.

It was a struggle to get the appointment because they were severely understaffed — everyone is tapping into mental-health services now, post-COVID — so I had to really fight to ask her for the paperwork. At one point it was August, and they told me I may not hear back until October, and I was devastated.

In October, I was able to sit down with a specialist in person. The tests were grueling. It’s just mental work in different ways and capacities. Sometimes you’re doing math or answering questions about your attention. Some questions have specific answers and if you don’t answer it correctly, they’ll mark that down. Sometimes they’ll ask questions that give you more than one option that you can answer. I met with the psychologist two hours a week — once a week over the course of four weeks.

Plot twist: When I got the test back, it turns out I don’t have ADHD. My therapist clarified that it’s actually my clinical anxiety and depression that affects my ability to focus. That diagnosis, however, doesn’t change the fact that I want people to know that the people that you really look up to, who seem like they’ve got it all together, busted their asses to do all the things that you think came easily to them, and it may have taken them twice as long to do it because they were freaking out and they have a particular way of doing things and it’s the only way that their brain will allow them to be productive. When you see your peers or co-workers out of their pattern, check in with them. Ask them how they’re truly feeling.

Denissa Roddy, 28, lead educational program manager in Maryland

I was definitely a hyperactive child, from day one. In kindergarten, my teacher would put me on time-out for being a “chatty Cathy.” I went to a Montessori school where they teach you practical, hands-on skills from a very young age, which was very good for my type of brain. I excelled in elementary school — with the exception of talking too much and being too extra. Because I did well in school, I think people thought I was really rambunctious or that I like to talk back. I didn’t even realize anything was wrong because my grades were so good.

When I was in the eighth grade, I got my first C. I didn’t understand how to do work. I’d switched schools and we didn’t have hands-on learning anymore. We had to sit down, read, and write. In math class, we had a time limit on tests, and I could not for the life of me finish my tests on time. My parents would be so upset with me because they would think that I wasn’t studying hard enough or prioritizing school. I was screaming internally because I didn’t know how to get people to understand that I was unable to sit my butt down and stare at paper for hours. I felt broken.

It’s crazy how when you’re younger, you can just have all of these quirks that people assume are like negative attributes, and they don’t realize that your brain just works differently. I even had a therapist in the past who misdiagnosed me: She claimed that because I talk so fast, I must be manic and therefore have some form of bipolar disorder. I actually had to get a whole new therapist because she wouldn’t listen to me.

When I went to grad school to get my MBA, I had to work on my mental health and reprogram my brain. At this point, I had already internalized what my parents told me, so I had decided they were right: I just was lazy. I didn’t care enough about school, and I wasn’t focused. I had convinced myself that those things were all true, despite me thinking I had ADHD and even being in therapy for many years.

I didn’t pursue the idea of medication right away because I wasn’t familiar with it, I didn’t know the side effects — it wasn’t until I went back to grad school, and I started to actually focus. I finally got officially diagnosed. My therapist observed my behavior and made her diagnosis after getting to know my behaviors over time. I currently take Adderall every day except on the weekends.

My ADHD very much still exists now, but in terms of my focus and productivity, I can make more out of my schedule. I can wake up and immediately start doing chores. Back in the day, it would take me a full hour to be able to get out of bed and start doing things. Now when my alarm goes off, I stay in bed for maybe ten minutes, scroll through my timeline, and immediately start cleaning, watering plants, getting myself ready for work, and running errands. My to-do list went from me making up for two weeks’ worth of work in one day to finally having the energy to cross off every single thing on my to-do list every single day, with no struggle.

I want people, especially Black parents and elders, to start understanding that atypical thinking, or your brain working differently, isn’t bad. If a child is hyperactive or can’t focus, it’s okay. Don’t assume they are intentionally not trying to do what you’re asking them to do. Consider there could be factors outside of their control.

Black women, I want us to not be as hard on ourselves. We are not given the opportunity to be impulsive, to struggle and to grow in the ways that other groups are, even in the communities of color. I want us to be allowed to be imperfect, to figure it out, stretch ourselves and be more open-minded to these issues.

Black Women Can Be Diagnosed With ADHD, Too