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ADHD and Substance Dependence

An estimated 4.4 percent of U.S. adults have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), also common among adolescents and characterized by symptoms such as inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. About 25 percent of U.S. adults with ADHD are treated for substance dependence every year, and people with ADHD are 2.5 times more likely to develop a substance dependence issue than those without the disorder.

Individuals with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder face symptoms such as difficulty focusing, hyperactivity and lack of impulse control. Nearly 10 million adults and 8 million children in the United States have ADHD, making it one of the most common mental disorders in the country. People with ADHD are more likely to encounter difficulties paying attention to detail, waiting their turn and finishing tasks and often take three to four times longer to complete a task than others do. On top of this, people with ADHD are at high risk of developing a substance dependence.

Symptoms of ADHD, such as impulsiveness and distractibility, make it easy for those with ADHD to fall into substance use. Stress levels for people with ADHD can be extremely high compared with those of the average individual, often triggering substance use. Many people with ADHD need constant stimuli for their overactive mind and often will create their own stimuli with substances if no other stimuli are present.

Why Do People with ADHD Use Substances?

Half of all adults with untreated ADHD develop a substance use disorder. Research shows that of the people with ADHD who use substances, 30 percent do so to get high, while 70 percent do so to improve their mood, sleep better or alleviate some other negative feeling or condition. Those with ADHD usually have lower levels of dopamine, a chemical that affects emotions, movement, and memory, and often take substances to boost this controversial neurotransmitter.

Substance dependence for people with ADHD is “two to three times higher” than for people without it.

Genetics also play a role in substance use among people with ADHD. “There’s an increased rate of substance use disorders in close relatives of people with ADHD,” says Dr. Timothy Wilens, author of the 2010 study “A Sobering Fact: ADHD Leads to Substance Abuse.”

Genes associated with risk-taking and novelty-seeking behaviors also predispose individuals to ADHD and substance abuse issues.

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What Is the Likelihood of People with ADHD Using Substances?

Wilens says the risk of substance dependence for people with ADHD is “two to three times higher” than for people without it. Dr. Howard Schubiner, a national expert on ADHD in children and adults, noted that 20 percent to 40 percent of adults with ADHD have a history of substance abuse. Children with ADHD have a smaller chance of substance use until age 15, at which point the risk drastically increases. For individuals with ADHD, the possibility of developing a substance dependency is common.

20% – 40%


of adults with ADHD have a history of substance abuse.

How Can People with ADHD Avoid Substance Abuse?

For people with ADHD, taking the necessary steps and precautions can help an individual avoid substance use. These steps include:

What Substance Use Treatment Is Available for People with ADHD?

Treating individuals with ADHD for substance dependence adds a layer of complexity that does not exist for recovering individuals without the disorder. Frequently, substance users with ADHD must receive treatment for the disorder before addressing their substance dependency. Treating ADHD first alleviates symptoms that make drug and alcohol treatment difficult.

Dual Recovery Programs

Treatment programs that focus on substance dependence and other mental health conditions, called dual recovery programs, address both disorders simultaneously. Upon completing an introductory period of treatment for ADHD and sobriety (usually six weeks to two months, ensuring ADHD treatment is working after evaluation), individuals begin rehab treatment that includes therapy and traditional substance use treatments while continuing treatment for ADHD.

Through dual recovery programs, traditional substance use treatments can be effective after individuals begin to treat their ADHD. Medications to treat ADHD provide the best protection against substance use and can help individuals focus on recovery. This along with proper therapy gives people the greatest chance to eliminate their substance use habit.

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Staying Sober

For people with ADHD, both recovering substance users and individuals without substance dependence issues, living a lifestyle that promotes sobriety greatly increases the odds of staying sober. Some tips for a healthy lifestyle for people with ADHD include:

How Do I Get Help?

If you or a loved one has ADHD and a substance use disorder or suspect either may be a problem, treatment may be the next step. A quality treatment center can help you get sober and treat an underlying mental disorder you may not have known you have.

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