Recent research suggests that exposure of women to abusive situations or events during childhood, particularly if these women have PTSD, dramatically increases their likelihood of engaging in self-injury. While it is clear that ADHD is highly heritable and biologically based, the research suggests that there is a significant environmental component to its onset. According to Maya Guendelman, a PhD student in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, “While ADHD is clearly a heritable and biologically based disorder, and can be treated with medications, it is very important for clinicians and treatment providers to pay close attention to the trauma experiences of individuals, particularly women, with ADHD.”
The relationship between the relevant variables is controversial, however. It is possible that the negative psychosocial outcomes of ADHD may involve parents lashing out at children as a result of difficulty coping with the ADHD of their child. Stress, of course, is never an excuse for abuse, and it may be necessary to come up with methods of helping parents engage in more constructive and positive means of coping with the stress of having a child who struggles with ADHD.
According to Guendelman, “In the United States, we have a large contingent of kids being diagnosed with ADHD. At the same time, 10 to 20 percent of US kids are abused or neglected. But we have very limited understanding of the overlap between these two groups…What if, in some portion of cases, we as clinicians, parents, and teachers are superficially seeing and diagnosing and treating symptoms of hyperactivity and inattention, but it is really trauma experiences that underlie some of those overt manifestations of ADHD?”
The study took 140 girls who had struggled with ADHD from childhood to adulthood since 1997 and found that girls with ADHD tend to internalize their psychological struggles, leading to a risk of developing eating disorders, suicidal gestures and self-injury during adulthood. Almost 25 percent of those with ADHD had reported some forma of trauma by adolescence compared with 11 percent of those without ADHD. They tended to be more self-destructive than those without ADHD as well.
“This is not to say that all ADHD is due to social adversity rather than biological factors,” she noted. “Rather, it suggests that we must consider the contribution of factors such as severe social stress and trauma in our understanding of how children with ADHD develop.” Indeed, it is becoming clear that a number of mental illnesses exhibit a high level of sensitivity to environmental factors:
“Across a range of mental disorders, from schizophrenia to depression and bipolar disorder, scientists are realizing that, despite the undisputed biological underpinnings of these conditions, key life experiences, including trauma, are essential forces related to long-term outcomes.”