These conversations created the perfect environment for mental health companies to advertise, said Olivia Little, a senior researcher at the nonprofit organization Media Matters for America. On TikTok, in particular, the companies jumped on viral trends, using popular sounds and memes in advertisements that often oversimplified complex symptoms of A.D.H.D., Ms. Little added.
“They’ll say things like, ‘Have you ever felt overwhelmed?’ ‘Do you ever not want to do your homework?’ Things that are very basic and universal,” she said. “Just take a short quiz. And you’ll be connected to a team of mental health professionals,” read one of Cerebral’s ads.
“I can’t tell you how much content I’ve seen where someone’s describing A.D.H.D., and it’s not actually A.D.H.D.,” Dr. Sibley said. These portrayals of the disorder lead people to identify with the diagnosis, she said, even if they would not meet the clinical criteria for A.D.H.D.
There are 18 symptoms of A.D.H.D., and in adults those can include frequently losing your keys or phone or struggling to follow a conversation at work. The average person meets at least one or two of these criteria, Dr. Sibley said, but the symptoms need to be severe enough to impair a person’s daily life in order to accurately receive an A.D.H.D. diagnosis. Children up to age 16 should have six or more symptoms of inattention or six or more symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity; those 17 or older need to have five symptoms from either category.
The majority of patients who are prescribed medication for A.D.H.D. will take stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin, Dr. Sibley said. The federal government classifies these drugs as controlled substances because of their potential for abuse and addiction.
When people who do not actually have A.D.H.D. take these medications, Dr. Stutzman said, they can “absolutely have health consequences,” including appetite suppression, cardiovascular issues and dangerous changes in blood pressure.
How to receive a proper diagnosis
There are a few things patients should look for to ensure they are getting an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan for A.D.H.D. A physical exam should be part of the diagnostic process, Dr. Sibley said, because thyroid problems, cardiac issues, concussions and other conditions could cause cognitive challenges that mimic the symptoms of A.D.H.D.