Uncovering the Link Between ADHD and Addiction

Uncovering the Link Between ADHD and Addiction

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Ben struggled all of his life to sit still and listen to his teachers. The signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) were clear from a young age. There was no doubt Ben was brilliant as he grew into a teenager, but he couldn’t focus on his schoolwork or remember where he left his car keys. Relationships with friends and family often became strained throughout high school because of his ADHD. A string of failed and unhealthy relationships had Ben begin using heavier drugs to cope with his perceived failures and a gnawing feeling that he wasn’t like everyone else. There was a clear link between his ADHD and addiction.

Like so many of his peers living with ADHD, Ben knows the reality that the risk of developing a substance use disorder (SUD) is twice as high as those without ADHD.1 Because of an overdose scare in the hospital at 20-years-old, he sought help for his drug use. 

Young people with ADHD are at an increased risk of developing an addiction that presents earlier in life and is more pervasive.1 Researchers have been studying the link between ADHD and addiction for decades.

Why People With ADHD Struggle With Addiction

  • The person may have a family history of addiction or ADHD and a predisposition toward the combination.
  •  A person with an addiction may use drugs as a means to self-medicate untreated ADHD.
  • The person may use drugs as a coping mechanism for perceived failures and shortcomings.

Understanding ADHD

ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Children with ADHD may have difficulty paying attention, rejecting impulsive behaviors, and can be highly active.5 Research squashes the popularly held views that ADHD is caused by overeating sugar, consuming too much TV, poor parenting, or social and environmental factors like poverty or family chaos. 

Fast Facts about ADHD

On average, an ADHD diagnosis occurs when a person is 7-years-old. The symptoms of ADHD usually first present between the ages of 3 and 6. Roughly 4 percent of American adults deal with ADHD daily basis.4

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Uncovering the Link Between ADHD and Addiction

The Link Between ADHD and Addiction

Research has shown the misuse of marijuana, alcohol, or a combination is the drugs most commonly abused by teens with ADHD. While the person may be trying to self-medicate the symptoms or problems associated with ADHD, an active SUD can exacerbate ADHD symptoms by as much as 30 %.1 That means the drugs used to dull the presence of ADHD are making the disorder worse. It’s a vicious cycle.

Ben felt more anxious when he was smoking weed and felt less focused after a night of binge drinking. He wasn’t feeling better, and he was constantly feeling worse. 

Challenges with ADHD that can lead to addiction

  • Difficulty maintaining relationships.1
  • Underachievement academically despite intellectual capabilities
  • The onset of co-occurring learning challenges
  • Prevalence of other psychiatric abnormalities
  • Inability to control compulsions
  • Understanding the links and the questions that still linger

Some medical researchers describe the link between ADHD and addiction as a disorder of disinhibition. This idea suggests an underlying vulnerability shared by the two conditions.2

Other medical experts believe the impulsivity experienced by people with ADHD increases the risk that the person will try using drugs. Research has shown that children with ADHD are significantly more likely to sample a range of substances over their life than their counterparts without ADHD.2

Some believe there could be links to how the brain receives or processes certain chemicals that predispose people to both disorders.

There are still many questions unanswered about ADHD and addiction.

Research is ongoing to understand why some people with ADHD develop a substance abuse disorder, but some don’t. There could be links back to childhood and their specific treatment plan.

Should specific steps be taken at the onset of an ADHD diagnosis to prevent drug abuse later in life?3 Practitioners agree that families should start counseling early concerning the potential for substance use disorders in children who are diagnosed with ADHD. Unfortunately, nearly a quarter of American children diagnosed with ADHD aren’t receiving either medication or mental health services for their disorder.4

Recovery and Freedom From Addiction Are Possible

Despite the remaining questions, one thing is sure. You can find freedom from a substance use disorder just like Ben. Research shows medication alone is not particularly effective for people living with ADHD and a substance use disorder. The person will likely need structured therapies to effectively treat the addiction and help the person develop life skills.

The strategy for caring for people with SUD and ADHD must include acknowledgment of both disorders. And often, young adults with SUD benefit from both family and individual counseling.1

Ocean Hills Recovery provides various alcohol and drug rehab programs in California to ensure a successful, healthy future. Our experienced drug rehab clinical staff members combine evidence-based psychotherapy with the proven theories of the twelve steps to create the most effective treatment experience available for you. Contact Ocean Hill Recovery today.


1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4414493/

2. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/adhd-and-substance-use-current-evidence-and-treatment-considerations

3. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2011/06/adhd-linked-to-substance-abuse-risk/

4. https://www.healthline.com/health/adhd/facts-statistics-infographic

5. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/facts.html

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