Study: Why Attention Deficit Disorder Is Over-Diagnosed

Researchers in Germany find that mental health practitioners tend to diagnose ADHD using their intuition and unclear rules of thumb, not recognized diagnostic criteria.

Study of the Day
Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock

PROBLEM: The rates of ADHD diagnosis in the developed world have become almost inflationary, increasing annually by an average of three percent from 1997 to 2006 and 5.5 percent from 2003 to 2007 in the U.S. But how accurate are these diagnoses?

METHODOLOGY: Researchers led by University of Basel's Katrin Bruchmueller surveyed 1,000 child and adolescent psychotherapists and psychiatrists across Germany, 473 of whom participated in the study. They received one of four case vignettes, and were asked to give a diagnosis and a recommendation for therapy. In three out of the four cases, the described symptoms and circumstances did not fulfill ADHD diagnostic criteria. The gender of the child was included as a variable as well, resulting in eight cases.

RESULTS: Many mental health practitioners seem to proceed heuristically and base their decisions on unclear rules of thumb. The respondents more readily diagnosed ADHD when the case involved a male patient and presented prototypical symptoms, such as impulsiveness, motoric restlessness, and lack of concentration. They were, for instance, twice more likely to conclude ADHD with the boy version of the vignettes than with the girl vignettes. Interestingly, even the therapist's gender played a role in the diagnostic as male doctors diagnosed ADHD more frequently than their female counterparts.

CONCLUSION: ADHD is over-diagnosed because doctors rely too much on their intuition and not on defined, established diagnostic criteria.

SOURCE: The full study, "Is ADHD Diagnosed in Accord With Diagnostic Criteria? Overdiagnosis and Influence of Client Gender on Diagnosis," is published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

Presented by

Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Video

Maine's Underground Street Art

"Graffiti is the farthest thing from anarchy."

Video

The Joy of Running in a Beautiful Place

A love letter to California's Marin Headlands

Video

'I Didn't Even Know What I Was Going Through'

A 17-year-old describes his struggles with depression.

Video

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

More in Health

Just In