The Unseen Upsurge: How ADHD Diagnoses Have Skyrocketed in the UK Over the Last 20 Years

In the United Kingdom, there’s been a startling uptick in the number of people diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) over the last two decades. If you’re not familiar with ADHD, imagine struggling to stay focused, wrestling with impulsive behaviors, or being constantly active, like a wind-up toy that never unwinds. Couple that with challenges in organization and poor time management skills, and you’re getting a glimpse into what life with ADHD can be like.

Now, you might be thinking, “Isn’t ADHD something that usually shows up in childhood?” Well, traditionally, yes. But that’s changing. And the recent UK trends highlight this shift.

Two Decades of ADHD Data in the UK: What We’ve Learned

A recent study conducted by researchers from University College London (UCL) dove deep into the data of seven million individuals, ranging from ages three to 99, spanning from 2000 to 2018. This data, sourced from the IQVIA Medical Research Data, offers a rich overview of primary care data for over 18 million patients across the UK.

Although this data primarily encompasses ADHD medications prescribed through NHS primary care, the patterns found are telling. The results show a significant rise in ADHD diagnoses, especially amongst boys aged between 10 and 16 years.

In 2000, around 1.4 percent of boys within this age group had an ADHD diagnosis, and 0.6 percent were on medication. By 2018, these numbers had jumped to 3.5 percent and 2.4 percent respectively.

However, the most notable surge has been seen in adult men. For instance, men aged between 18 and 29 experienced about a 20-fold increase in ADHD diagnoses during this period. The rate of prescriptions for them skyrocketed, showing an almost 50-fold increase (from 0.01 percent to 0.56 percent).

The Not-So-Invisible Increase in Adults

This escalation in adult diagnoses and prescriptions is especially intriguing. As ADHD becomes better recognized and diagnosed, more people are receiving their first diagnoses in adulthood. On the surface, this increase might seem alarming, but could it be a reflection of greater awareness and understanding of ADHD in our society?

Unfortunately, the rise in diagnoses also correlates with longer waiting lists for ADHD assessments on the NHS, particularly for adults. As more individuals seek help and treatment, the demand for specialist services will inevitably rise.

The Deeper Impact: Socioeconomic Factors and ADHD

The data also revealed a startling disparity. The number of ADHD diagnoses among both children and adults was around twice as high in the most deprived areas. This raises crucial questions about health equality. Many people resort to private care for ADHD treatment, which may not be feasible for everyone, particularly for those living in deprived areas.

While the increase in diagnoses indicates that more people are receiving treatment for ADHD, there’s still a need for greater support and monitoring of prescriptions. Currently, the process for obtaining medication through the NHS starts with a specialist referring a patient to their GP for ongoing treatment.

An Urgent Call to Action

The findings of this study underscore the need for a more efficient and effective system of care for people with ADHD. As rates of ADHD increase, we must ensure the right frameworks are in place to support GPs and patients alike, allowing for prompt, safe, and effective care.

The challenge is steep, but it’s not insurmountable. With adequate resources and proper funding, mental health and primary care services can manage the growing demand for support, enabling timely and high-quality post-diagnostic care.

Our understanding and treatment of ADHD have come a long way, but we still have miles to go. It’s a journey that calls for compassion, understanding, and most importantly, action. Remember, no one should have to wait to receive the help they need, especially when it comes to their mental health.

Further reading

Sayal, K., Prasad, V., Daley, D., Ford, T., & Coghill, D. (2018). ADHD in children and young people: Prevalence, care pathways, and service provision. The Lancet Psychiatry, 5(2), 175-186.

Thomas, R., Sanders, S., Doust, J., Beller, E., & Glasziou, P. (2015). Prevalence of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Pediatrics, 135(4), e994-e1001. Link

McCarthy, S., Wilton, L., Murray, M. L., Hodgkins, P., Asherson, P., & Wong, I. C. (2012). The epidemiology of pharmacologically treated attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children, adolescents and adults in UK primary care. BMC Pediatrics, 12(1), 78. Link

Cortese, S., Adamo, N., Del Giovane, C., Mohr-Jensen, C., Hayes, A. J., Carucci, S., … & Atkinson, L. Z. (2018). Comparative efficacy and tolerability of medications for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in children, adolescents, and adults: a systematic review and network meta-analysis. The Lancet Psychiatry, 5(9), 727-738. Link

Russell, G., Ford, T., Rosenberg, R., & Kelly, S. (2014). The association of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder with socioeconomic disadvantage: Alternative explanations and evidence. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 55(5), 436-445.

Midouhas, E., Ioannidis, K., & Flouri, E. (2021). The association between socioeconomic disadvantage and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): A systematic review and meta-analysis. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 52(4), 560-574.