ADHD vs. Depression: How to Differentiate Similar Symptoms

2 min read

ADHD and depression share a complex relationship. Not only do these distinct conditions often co-occur, but they also share a number of signs and symptoms, marked with asterisks in the following section.

Depressive episode symptoms (SIGECAPS)

  • Sleep problems (insomnia or hypersomnia)
  • Interest decreased*
  • Guilt or feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness*
  • Energy decreased
  • Concentration decreased*
  • Appetite and/or weight change
  • Psychomotor agitation or retardation*
  • Suicidal ideation

Four of the nine symptoms of a depressive episode (in addition to the hallmark symptom, depressed mood), overlap with ADHD, which makes differentiation for an accurate diagnosis both difficult and critical, said Nelson Handal, MD, during an ADDitude webinar.

Here, Handal reviews some of the symptoms shared by ADHD and depression.

Handal notes that difficulty concentrating with depression is not the same as difficulty paying attention with ADHD. 

“With ADHD’s inattention, you get the arousal level to pay attention, but you can't pay attention,” he said. “You can't filter the information and process it. With concentration problems [in depression], you don't have the energy … to get to the cognitive point of being able to grasp information. It's different.”

Concentration problems, to be sure, can also be rooted in anxiety -- another condition that overlaps with ADHD. “With anxiety, you [can also] have concentration problems, but that is because you have several ideas -- thoughts that are coming in and out -- and you cannot concentrate on one,” he said.

A reluctance to “engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort” is a symptom of ADHD that manifests as lack of motivation. While it looks a lot like a lack of interest, there are important differences.

“Lack of interest in depression is like, you don't even have energy to think about what you want to do today,” Handal said. “Lack of motivation with ADHD is like a frustrated person who has tried everything, and now they're going to do something else and replace what they were supposed to do.”

To learn more about ADHD and depression, watch the full replay of Handal’s free ADDitude webinar, “New Insights Into and Treatments for Comorbid Depression.”

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