More than 6 million U.S. children from ages 2 to 17 are currently diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC also estimates that ⅔ of these children (64 percent) also have other co-occurring mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders (1).
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 1 out of 3 of those children will continue to have ADHD into their adult years. This means that 4.4 percent of American adults from ages 18 to 44 are living with diagnosable ADHD (2), along with their continuing co-occurring mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders.
This includes substance abuse disorder, which is currently estimated to affect 25 percent of adolescents with ADHD (3).
What is ADHD?
The American Psychiatric Association describes ADHD as a disorder characterized by above-average hyperactivity, impulsivity, and trouble focusing. Symptoms include:
- trouble concentrating
- being easily distracted
- difficulty sitting still
- interrupting others
As of yet, there is no known cause and no medical lab testing for identifying ADHD. ADHD is diagnosed based on behavioral data and the systematic ruling out of other possible medical issues.
The Connection Between ADHD & Substance Abuse
A 2014 study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence found a strong correlation between addiction and ADHD. The study tracked a total of 1,276 people from seven different countries (Hungary, Norway, France, Switzerland, Spain, Netherlands, and Sweden) who were suffering from and seeking help for substance abuse. The average rate of ADHD in the general population is about 6 to 9 percent. By comparison, the results showed that the average rate of ADHD in this addicted population was much higher, even after adjusting for other factors. In Norway, for example, 31.3 percent of the addicted population met the diagnostic criteria for ADHD (4).
Another study found that teenagers around 14 years of age who have ADHD are almost twice as likely to use alcohol as their non-ADHD peers (40 percent vs 22 percent). The researchers of this study concluded that there is a “meaningful correlation” between ADHD and alcohol use in teenagers (5).
Despite the research, there is no clear answer as to why this correlation between substance use and ADHD exists. Some — like Dr. Sarah Johnson, MD (medical director at a substance abuse treatment center) — theorize that it is because those with ADHD have issues regulating neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine. ADHD-driven emotional factors such as boredom and restlessness also likely come into play.
Substance abuse can be particularly challenging for adults with untreated or undiagnosed ADHD. Considering that only 20 percent of adults with ADHD are properly diagnosed and treated, and only 1 out of 4 of those will seek help for their ADHD, there is a relatively high risk for adults with ADHD to develop addiction problems.
Preventing Addiction for People with ADHD
“One of the strongest predictors of substance use disorders in adulthood is the early use of substances, and children and teens with ADHD have an increased likelihood of using substances at an early age,” said Dr. Jeff Temple, licensed psychologist and director of behavioral health in the OB-GYN department at the University of Texas Medical Branch.
To put it another way, the best treatment for addiction is prevention. For those with ADHD, this means receiving treatment for their ADHD as early on as possible. It means working with a professional team to figure out the best treatment plan: therapy, medication, behavioral interventions, or some combination of these treatments.
Pairing treatment with certain lifestyle changes has been shown to be most effective in managing ADHD symptoms. These lifestyle changes include:
- regular exercise
- cutting down on sugar and caffeine
- quality sleep
Treating ADHD & Addiction Together
If you have substance abuse problems as well as ADHD, the first step is to get sober. Treatment cannot start until you get sober, as addiction will only interfere with whatever treatment you attempt. Many addiction treatment centers, including Fort Behavioral Health, provide dual-diagnosis treatment responses for those with co-occurring conditions.
Dual-diagnosis treatment can include:
- rehabilitation (e.g., inpatient center)
- support groups
If you or someone you know is showing signs of ADHD, it is crucial to get diagnosis and treatment as early on as possible. This will help minimize the risk of developing substance abuse issues and other disorders down the road. Often, heavy substance use is an attempt at self-medication. For those with undiagnosed and untreated ADHD, this urge to self-medicate can become overwhelming. Getting treatment early on can give you the skills and support to cope with these urges in healthier ways.
If you are struggling with substance use — whether or not you also meet the diagnostic criteria for ADHD — getting sober is the first step to a better life. There is help out there for you, no matter how hopeless it may seem. Whether you have been diagnosed with ADHD, suspect you may have undiagnosed ADHD, or have ADHD without even knowing it, there are professionals who can help you manage both your ADHD and addiction. You may find that dual-diagnosis treatment is just the relief you were looking for.
The Fort Worth Recovery umbrella covers medically supervised detox, as well as residential programs for men and women alike. Our programs are abstinence-based and combine a 12-step approach with a strong mental health component, integrating cutting-edge techniques such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR), Somatic Experiencing, and Motivational Interviewing. For more information or to start your healing journey, please fill out a contact request form and one of our recovery experts will connect with you shortly.