The Link Between ADHD and Substance Abuse

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It’s not uncommon for individuals struggling with addiction to suffer from a co-occurring disorder. There are many theories that address this link, and some cases are very difficult to understand. Did the addiction come first, or did the personality disorder come first?

To make things more challenging, conditions like ADD and ADHD are more prevalent than they were in years past, and some studies show that individuals with these disorders are more likely to have substance abuse problems as they get older. In fact, an alcohol dependency is five to 10 times more likely to occur in people with ADHD compared to those without the condition, according to research reported by WebMD. In the population being treated for addiction, about 25 percent have ADHD.

Further research suggests that there is a link between marijuana and ADHD. People with the disorder tend to experiment with drugs earlier than people without the condition, and it is more common for teenagers with ADHD to start abusing drugs and alcohol. If you or someone you love has ADHD, these statistics can be worrisome. But, as we always like to remind our clients and their families, nothing is a death sentence. Even if addiction has become a problem, successfully treating both ADHD and the addiction is possible.

Why are People with ADHD More Likely to Have Substance Abuse Problems?

The first question that people ask is why addiction is more common in individuals who suffer from co-occurring disorders. We hope that by understanding this link, we can better protect the people who are diagnosed with ADHD and ADD.

The first factor that researchers have looked at is the impulsivity that goes along with ADHD. Since ADHD makes people more spontaneous and likely to have behavioral problems, these individuals are more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol to deal with their issues. Also, because the brain and body never feel at rest, people will use drugs and alcohol to help them relax, something called self medicating.

Self medicating is very common in people who are having trouble dealing with their emotions. Whether they’re anxious, sad or depressed, they medicate themselves with drugs and alcohol to help them forget about their problems and relax their mood. Self medicating is even more likely in people who have not been given a proper diagnosis. We have learned a lot about ADHD and ADD in recent years, but many adults who suffer from the condition may not even know they have it. Their only outlet for dealing with the anxiety and impulsivity is to self medicate.

Finally, both ADHD and alcoholism run in families. Older adults who have not been treated for the condition may adopt poor coping skills, such as abusing alcohol. They can then pass genes for both alcoholism and ADHD down to their children.

What about Drugs Used to Treat ADHD? Aren’t They Addictive?

When diagnosed with ADHD, a stimulant medication is generally prescribed by a physician. These medications work by raising dopamine levels in the brain that improve focus and attention. Yet because these drugs increase dopamine levels, they are also somewhat addictive. Stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall have been known to be sold on the streets, with people using them who weren’t prescribed them. ADD stimulants are combined with other drugs or taken in high doses to create similar effects to cocaine.

If these medications could have these effects on everyday people, shouldn’t those being prescribed Ritalin and other drugs be worried? Especially since those with ADHD have a higher risk of addiction in the first place?

While stimulants do have an addictive factor to them, when used accordingly, their risk for addiction is low. If you or a loved one is diagnosed with ADHD, it’s important to take the medications as prescribed by your doctor. There is a difference between taking Adderall in a low dose and under the care of a physician versus buying a pill on the street and combining it with alcohol. However, it’s important that we take these medications seriously, so be watchful of any potential signs of dependency. The dose may need to be lowered.

It’s also important to note that research has shown that there is no greater risk of substance abuse in those who are taking stimulants prescribed by a doctor. One of the largest long-term studies followed 100 boys with ADHD for 10 years and found that they were no more likely to have a dependency than in their non-ADHD peers. In fact, being on medication may actually prevent future substance abuse problems because the symptoms of ADHD – impulsivity, anxiety, low self esteem – are being treated, and these are the symptoms that may very well lead to experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

What can we learn from this information? Getting a diagnosis and treatment for ADHD disorders is important at any age. Even if you or a loved one ends up with an addiction, both ADHD and the dependency can be treated successfully, and a new life built.