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When Every Season is ADHD Tax Season, Black Women Suffer the Most

Financial burden is a nearly universal experience, with 85% of the global population living on incomes of under $10,000 a year. Unique barriers to financial success and stability exist on all planes of race, sex/gender, socioeconomic class, etc.—and those barriers only worsen with increased intersection between identities. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition of neurodiversity that impacts “emotions, learning, memory and self-control” according to clinical psychologist Dr. Rachel Woodward, the severity varying from person to person, but still ultimately forming an incredibly vulnerable population.

The average person’s idea of an individual with ADHD is likely a young, white boy—one who is hyper, incapable of sitting still or focusing too long on one thing, and probably often disrupting class amidst his uncontainable restlessness. Despite it being the most diagnosed neurodevelopmental condition in childhood, young, white males are by far the most likely to be diagnosed and treated for ADHD. However, many Black girls and women can confidently say they understand and relate to the behavior of the boy in that collective societal image; and they can also say that ADHD is much more than that image presents, too.

ADHDers typically earn 25% less than similar peers without ADHD, while frequently accruing more penalty fees than their counterparts. This phenomenon is one element of the ADHD Tax. As a result of executive dysfunction—especially in relation to time management, memory, and organization—ADHDers are prone to habits and mistakes that either prevent them from saving money or result in them wasting money, such as making impulsive purchases or financial decisions, failing to return unwanted purchases, not using groceries before they spoil, forgetting to cancel free trial subscriptions or make payments before deadlines, etc. Writer Emilia Joyce describes how she has “put offers down on flats, booked holidays and even moved countries largely impulsively. Nothing is thought through: if I have an urge to do something, I’ll do it. I’m too passionate to place my head over my heart.”

ADHDers often undertake a ‘buy now, pay later’ mindset; however, ‘later’ is something we struggle to fully conceptualize. Professor Russell Barkley explains ADHD as creating a “nearsightedness to time,” preventing those with it from properly anticipating future consequences to their current behaviors unless those consequences are imminent. For people with ADHD, especially those who are unaware and/or undiagnosed—as Black women often are—the ADHD Tax ends up costing more than just money.

These perpetual financial blunders can cause increased stress, feelings of shame and hopelessness, etc. Many ADHDers believe that they are lazy or that they don’t try hard enough, blaming themselves for their inability to achieve personal, mental, and financial success. Society often shares this perspective. Due to misunderstandings of disability and neurodivergence, the ways ADHD symptoms manifest have often been attributed to personal or moral failing by those without ADHD.

For Black people, partial blame for this lies in the stigma of mental illness that runs rampant in the Black community, an unfortunate consequence of the lack of mental health education and resources afforded to Black and/or marginalized communities. Black parents can harbor feelings of distrust, annoyance, and ignorance toward topics of neurodiversity, and they can end up acting as obstacles to Black children being able to receive diagnoses, accommodations, and treatment. Particularly in immigrant families, symptoms of mental illness can be seen as intentional slights rather than uncontrollable presentations of a deeper problem. Many ADHD behaviors in childhood and adolescence can frequently be read as defiance, fostering many academic and developmental consequences that can profoundly affect that ADHDer's life into adulthood and beyond.

Unlike white children who display ADHD symptoms, Black children are more likely to be kicked out of class. Adults in roles that allow them to notice manifestations of ADHD in children—such as teachers or clinicians—can misinterpret the signs when they are unfamiliar with what those signs can look like across different children, as well as when they have biases informing their judgment. As early as kindergarten, it is already 70% less likely for a Black child to receive an ADHD diagnosis than it is for a white child to receive one. This only increases across the lifespan, as white 10th graders have been found to be 2x as likely to have received an ADHD diagnosis and be undergoing treatment than their Black counterparts.

Overall, even when showing similar or the same rates of symptom development, people of color have less of a chance of getting their ADHD diagnosed. Even when Black children have exhibited more intense symptomatology than their white peers, they will still get overlooked. Considering the school-to-prison pipeline and how it disproportionately affects Black youth, the knowledge that 40% of the United States’ incarcerated population has been found to have ADHD paints a deeply terrifying picture.

Not only does race—the race of an ADHDer and the races of the people diagnosing them—influence ADHD treatment and diagnosis, but sex is also a significant element. ADHD has been found to impact people differently depending on their sex, with cisgender female ADHDers presenting less-obvious, inattentive symptomology than cisgender male ADHDers, who are prone to the stereotypically hyperactive behavior aforementioned. In addition, while all individuals with ADHD undergo harsh life outcomes as a result of the condition, girls with ADHD have been found to exhibit greater severity of symptoms and risk factors.

ADHD also has a high rate of comorbidity with various other conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), intellectual disabilities, behavioral disorders, etc. Therefore, many individuals with ADHD may also be knowingly or unknowingly tackling both the individual and combined complexities of having other conditions or disabilities. In conjunction with—or possibly as a result of—all of these elements (which is on brand with the inherently paradoxical nature of this condition), ADHD is often associated with antisocial habits, decreased academic achievement or premature academic discontinuation, financial illiteracy/instability and poor credit, struggles to sustain employment, substance abuse, and even ultimately suicidal ideation/suicide. Thus, Black women with ADHD are a fiercely underserved, disadvantaged, and vulnerable population.

With high rates of non-diagnosis and a low likelihood of gaining a pathway to treatment, many Black women with ADHD can end up feeling alone in the magnitude of our experience. Black women with ADHD have to face other pressures on top of the debilitating weight of ADHD and the ADHD Tax, such as misogynoir, the “Superwoman Schema,” the Pink Tax, and the Black Tax. The Black tax refers both to the extra costs many Black, first-generation professionals holster to financially support their family members and the emotional costs Black professionals often pay when traversing the workforce.

Black women are expected to be strong, resilient, and nurturing, deprioritizing ourselves and our well-being in the face of these multifaceted layers of adversity we navigate daily. When we’re unable to do that—when we find we don’t have as much capacity as other Black women—it can feel like we’ve doomed ourselves to a place even lower in the hierarchy of society than we’re already designed to have. Our suffering, more than others, is frequently linked to the idea of failing in some way.

It goes so far that many Black women in need of mental health resources avoid seeking them, in an effort not to appear lazy, weak, or incapable. Renè Brooks puts it eloquently: “It’s very isolating to sit at that intersection because no one’s there, or so we [think].” Degrees of marginalization stack on top of each other like heavy weights, sending us further and further away from success, fulfillment, and happiness.

Blockades to being diagnosed with ADHD as a Black woman are many, with COVID-19 being a new addition to that list. Still, the rates of ADHD diagnoses are on the rise. As Devon Fryer explains, while an ADHD diagnosis doesn’t guarantee treatment for Black ADHDers, “undiagnosed ADHD can be deadly.” As more people discover that they have ADHD, the world’s understanding of it—and of neurodiversity as a whole—begins to change. And so, their willingness to understand changes with it. Researchers are already anticipating the future implications of unpacking the misconceptions both the medical field and society have perpetuated about the causes, signs, and effective treatments of ADHD. It is estimated that this will possibly take decades of thorough work.

Many researchers entertain the idea that ADHD is a product developed by our societal environment, not an issue of brain chemistry. The oppressive landscape of society leaves many individuals, especially those of us actively battling the distraction of oppression, unable to focus and function within it. As someone whose ADHD diagnosis completely up-ended their entire understanding of themself and their life history—and who is still processing the true scope of this disability—my only hope is that I can put that same capital-Q Question, that pervasive what if…?, in the head of another Black woman who might not know she needs it most, allowing her to begin an indescribable journey of grief, anger, self-reflection, understanding, and, ideally, acceptance.

I would not be the first to confess that the last stage takes much internal work to even dream of achieving, as coming to terms with a disability is never easy, but, either way, just having a framework for why she might be the way she isand why she struggles the way she does—will drastically improve the trajectory of that Black woman’s personal, mental, and financial success. Trust me.

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