ADHD and Addiction - What is the Risk?
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, commonly referred to as ADHD, is a condition affecting millions of Americans, with thousands more people receiving the diagnosis every year. Both adults and children can be identified as having the mental disorder, which is characterized by qualities like being easily distracted, behaving impulsively without considering the consequences of one’s actions, and a general lack of focus on daily tasks. There are an estimated 6.4 million American children between the ages of four and 17 who have been diagnosed with ADHD. Additionally, nearly 4.4 percent of adults living in the United States are either living with or experiencing symptoms of ADHD.
There have been several studies that suggest there is a direct link between having ADHD and falling victim to substance use disorder (SUD). One study that focused specifically on the link between ADHD and future substance abuse issues in teenagers established that enduring ADHD as a child or adolescent may be as substantial an indicator for future addiction issues as being genetically prone to diseases like alcoholism. What this research also indicates is that there are effective ways of treating both afflictions to help those suffering live a healthy, balanced life.
The following guide is designed to provide information on how having ADHD has been linked to substance abuse issues in some individuals. You will find information on the signs that indicate someone is suffering with an addiction, suggestions on supporting someone whose ADHD may have triggered substance abuse, and helpful advice on the many resources available for helping someone who is struggling with either mental malady. If you are currently coping with either condition, it's important to remember that you are not alone – there are others who may be dealing with similar pains, and there are many ways to receive help.
The Link Between ADHD and Substance Abuse
Comorbidity or co-occurrence happens when multiple mental conditions are present in the brain at the same time. One can cause another, and they can each work to fuel the other. For example, someone diagnosed with ADHD may develop anxiety as a result of feeling pressure to keep up with peers who are not afflicted by ADHD in school or the workplace. High stress can lead to an increased risk of substance abuse, therefore creating a direct link between it and ADHD.
Drugs, alcohol, nicotine and other controlled substances release the feel-good chemical dopamine in your brain when they are used. For some people, the brain is “tricked” into thinking that this action is now something required for survival by making it difficult for the body to naturally produce dopamine. This can make it nearly impossible for someone with an addiction to quit without some sort of help, because their body is telling them that they may literally die without the source of their addiction constantly being put into the body. There are a few telltale signs to watch for that may indicate drug or alcohol abuse:
- A substance impacts a user’s everyday life. This resource points out that the frequency in which a substance is used doesn’t necessarily mean a problem doesn’t exist. For example, if someone smokes marijuana a few days a week, but it’s affecting his or her life to the point he or she misses school, work or other obligations, the fact that the smoking doesn’t occur daily should not rule out that the drug is being abused.
- A sudden or dramatic change in behavior can be indicative of chemical dependency. This could mean withdrawing from one’s social circle, lying about one’s behavior with a substance, or taking actions that are dangerous or illegal in order to obtain it.
- Taking a medication in a quantity or dosage other than the way a doctor prescribes it can signal a bigger issue. When someone has an addiction, they tend to need more and more of the substance as time goes on in order to feel its effects.
The following resources provide helpful insight into how ADHD may influence a person’s future issues with abusing substances.
In a study led by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, findings revealed there is a direct correlation between having childhood ADHD later experiencing issues with addiction. Those with ADHD were 15 percent more likely to have tried at least one controlled substance than their peers without the disorder by the time they reached an average age of 17.
Some of the characteristics of ADHD, such as hyperactivity and difficulty remaining focused on a task, may inherently create a higher risk of future substance abuse. This may be due to the fact that those with the disorder have the tendency to act rashly, leading to poor choices such as binge drinking or experimenting with drugs.
People dealing with ADHD symptoms often experience other mental health issues related to their ADHD, such as depression. One of the ways many people attempt to “self-medicate” is by drinking excessively, abusing prescription medications or by trying out illicit drugs in order to escape the frustrations of everyday life. Adults and children with ADHD often feel a sense of isolation, and try to find ways to cope accordingly.
Research conducted at the University of California, Los Angeles concluded that children being treated with medication for their ADHD – such as Ritalin or Adderall – are not being put at a greater risk for future substance abuse issues simply due to their medication. This includes both children who were previously and are currently taking prescription medication to ease their symptoms.
What to Do if You or Someone You Care About is Struggling with ADHD and Addiction
Whether you are fighting a battle against addiction or someone you care about may be, it’s important to remember that addiction is a complex, multi-level affliction. Although there are measures that can be taken to avoid becoming addicted, such as avoiding addictive substances like alcohol and federally-regulated medications, an addiction is not the fault of the person enduring it or of the person’s family and friends. The following resources provide information on effective actions you can take if you or someone you care about is struggling.
If you feel your life is being impacted by an addiction as a direct or an indirect result of your ADHD, you should reach out for help as soon as possible. You should start by reaching out to someone with whom you feel at ease, whether that person is a parent, friend, teacher or physician. You do not have to go through the process alone, and your confidante can help you take the necessary measures toward recovery.
If you suspect your child may be struggling with addiction issues, it’s important that you know some of the warning signs of addiction and feel prepared to probe for more information from your child if necessary. This is especially crucial if your child doesn’t want to discuss the problem openly, or doesn’t understand that he or she has an addiction issue to begin with. You can then turn to your child’s pediatrician with your concerns, and the doctor will help you take the appropriate next steps.
Some people who are struggling with addiction don’t realize how their behavior affects those around them. This resource provides helpful information on how to start an honest conversation with someone about the concerns you have regarding his or her wellbeing.
Understand that there may be more to the issue than meets the eye. As we’ve learned, ADHD can cause other mental health disorders, including low self-esteem, depression and insomnia. The combination of ADHD with one of these other illnesses may impact someone’s dependency on a controlled substance. Recognizing that there are several factors at play in someone’s addiction is helpful in finding their most effective solution.
If the problem is extreme, you may want to consider having an intervention for the person who is suffering. It is critical to not attempt to accomplish this goal without the guidance of an educated professional. He or she will ensure that your intervention will go as smoothly as possible, so your chance of success is greater. This resource provides information on who to contact if you are interested in staging an intervention.
Treatment Options for Dealing with ADHD and Substance Abuse
Having SUD is not unusual for those with ADHD. Most medical professionals who have studied the impact of these dual conditions on a patient recommend a customized comprehensive treatment plan that often involves therapy, and if necessary, medication. The following resources provide useful information on some of the treatment options available for those trying to overcome their addiction and manage ADHD symptoms.
Integrative treatment is vital. This means you are treating both afflictions hand-in-hand, ADHD and SUD, by developing a plan that aims to relieve you of the issues associated with both conditions. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), this type of treatment plan reduces costs for the patient and provides a better, longer-lasting outcome than trying to tackle one issue at a time.
If you are currently on medication for your ADHD or another mental health disorder and you and your doctor feel you should continue to take medication, you may want to consider switching to a non-stimulant formula. They may be less likely to be abused, and can further aid you in your recovery.
Seek professional counseling to assist you in overcoming your SUD and learning to manage your ADHD. A psychotherapist can help you understand how your ADHD affects your substance abuse issues, and therefore help you address some of the latent causes of your SUD that you may not have been aware were factors in your addiction.
If your child is struggling with SUD as a result of his or her ADHD, consider family therapy sessions. Your counselor will help you work together as a family to overcome the obstacles presented by both ailments. If you don’t feel ready to try group sessions, try scheduling individual appointments for yourself. You will learn what steps to take at home to provide the guidance and support your child needs, both for dealing with his or her addiction and living with ADHD.
Try working with a therapist or psychiatrist who has experience working with ADHD patients. You will feel more comfortable during your sessions, because they will understand how this condition adds a unique layer to your substance abuse, and know how to work around these issues to help you achieve your ultimate goal of living a stable, addiction-free life.
Sometimes a dependency issue is diagnosed before ADHD is. In this scenario, a psychiatrist should look into whether or not there are other underlying issues like ADHD contributing to the problem of addiction so you can receive a full treatment plan to address both aspects of your condition.
Additional Helpful Resources
Whether you have fallen victim to an addiction or seek support in coping with your ADHD, there are many different organizations that can offer you the assistance you need. The following resources provide helpful information on groups whose mission is to provide you both peer and professional guidance.
ADHD & You is an online community built for those living with ADHD. It is designed to help you learn about the disorder, how your symptoms can be unique compared to those of someone else with ADHD, and how to manage them.
This tool from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence can be helpful in preparing yourself to talk to your doctor about concerns of substance abuse by reflecting honestly on your drug or alcohol use.
This search engine from SAMHSA can assist you in finding local behavioral treatment centers or services.
SMART Recovery is an online support group for those suffering from many kinds of addiction, and offers meetings at local chapters.
Additionally, there are many specialized recovery groups for those suffering from addiction.
Learning you have ADHD may initially make you feel like you are alone, but there are millions of other people with this diagnosis who may be feeling the same kinds of stress that you do. Although having ADHD may make you more susceptible to future substance abuse issues, finding effective ways of handling the disorder’s challenges could be the key in warding off SUD problems down the road. If you are concerned that you or someone close to you is heading down a dangerous path with a controlled substance, remember that there are many resources available to help you – and most importantly, that you are not alone in this fight.