According to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and substance abuse is “inextricably intertwined.”
Several studies have found that those with ADHD are five to ten times more likely to become alcoholics as an adult and approximately 25% of adults being treated for substance addiction have ADHD as well. One study suggests that teens with ADHD ages 15-17 are 14% more likely to develop problems with substance dependency than those without. This is due to a number of factors, including but not limited to behavioral problems and access to stimulants as a way to treat the disorder.
Researchers have found links between substance abuse—particularly in the use of marijuana and other recreational drugs—and psychological disorders, including ADHD and obsessive-compulsive disorders. This is common in those who use drugs and alcohol as a method of providing temporary relief from symptoms of ADHD. Those with ADHD also tend to be more impulsive and have additional behavioral issues that contribute to an increased likelihood of substance abuse. Research also indicates that ADHD, like alcoholism, can be transmitted genetically and puts individuals at an increased risk for substance use. Research suggests that both alcoholism and ADHD stem from similar genes. Biological factors can create a genetic predisposition to addiction, especially in cases where alcoholism and ADHD are already present.
Another risk factor associated with substance abuse among those with ADHD is the use of stimulant medications for treatment. Stimulant medications, such as Ritalin, are addictive and work by raising levels of dopamine in the brain. This improves concentration and attention, but simultaneously affects emotions and consciousness, producing feelings of a “high.” ADHD medication is often abused by those with or without the disorder, as individuals snort or inject the drug in order to produce euphoric feelings. Taking the drug as prescribed makes it less likely that an individual will become addicted; however, taking the drug in any way other than how it is prescribed can lead to dependency. In large doses, Ritalin can produce effects similar to cocaine, earning it the nickname “poor man’s cocaine”, and long-term use of the drug can lead to increased tolerance which may cause individuals to take more than the prescribed amount so as to produce the same effects.
Children are diagnosed with ADHD at a much higher rate than adults. Adult ADHD is often not properly diagnosed due to misconceptions about the symptoms or misdiagnosis as another mental health disorder. This often makes adults turn to self-medication in order to treat symptoms, making ADHD a catalyst for addiction. Although studies show that this leads primarily to alcoholism, additional forms of addiction may develop as an individual explores methods of addressing their symptoms. With a proper diagnosis of ADHD, individuals are able to receive treatment that makes them far less likely to turn to drugs or alcohol. When creating a treatment plan for ADHD, it is important to properly ascertain the value of stimulant drugs in treating the disorder. This helps to ensure that an individual with a predisposition to addiction is not “enabled” via prescription medication, especially if an individual already struggles with addiction. Individualized treatment designed to address the unique needs of an individual with ADHD can reduce the likelihood of addiction and help them manage stressors in a healthy, productive way.