ADHD and Substance Abuse: Are They Linked?

adhd and substance abuse | Just Believe Recovery PA

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ADHD and Substance Abuse: Are They Linked?

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), at least 5% of children in the United States have ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that up to 11% of American children, ages 4-17, have the disorder. Furthermore, research shows that there may be a correlation between ADHD and substance abuse, with or without the long-term use of stimulant medications.

Thus, you probably know someone who has been prescribed a stimulant drug for ADHD. Among the most common is methylphenidate, also known by the brand names Ritalin and Concerta. Another popular treatment is Adderall, which is a combination of amphetamine and dextroamphetamine.

ADHD, Stimulant Therapy, and Substance Abuse

For the first time, a study has been performed by the University of Michigan which compares early use and long-duration stimulant medication therapy with non-stimulant therapy for children with ADHD. In the nationwide study, over 40,000 persons from 10 different sites participated between 2005-2014 as part of Monitoring the Future. Their findings are quite interesting, but may not be the results you would expect.

As it turns out, youth who have been taking stimulant medications, such as Ritalin or Adderall, for ADHD over a long period of time are at no higher risk for substance abuse than other teens.

However, teens who begin using these medication for ADHD for a shorter time later in adolescence (such as middle school or high school) are at a heightened risk for substance abuse. No significant gender differences were noted across the board.

Since increased substance abuse is associated with later administration of stimulant therapy for ADHD during adolescence, researchers recommended monitoring this group for pre-existing risk factors regarding substance abuse potential.

In addition, teenagers had a 61% increased risk of irregular heart beat during the first 60 days of drug use. However, there was no increased risk of high blood pressure, stroke, or cardiac failure. Patients with existing heart disease are at the greatest risk. Another study found recently that stimulant therapy could slightly increase the risk of arrhythmia in youth who were prescribed the drug for ADHD.

ADHD, Drug Abuse, and Alcoholism

Despite the weak connection between long-term stimulant use in young ADHD patients, several studies have revealed a fairly strong association between ADHD and substance abuse. In fact, ADHD is at least 5 times more common among adult alcohol abusers than people without the condition. For those adults in treatment, the rate of ADHD is as high as 25%.

In addition, it is more common for ADHD children to begin abusing alcohol in their teen years. It is believed that the behavioral problems and impulsivity often found in ADHD sufferers also contributes to substance abuse. And both conditions run in families – for example, a child with ADHD who has a parent engaging in substance abuse is more likely to develop a substance abuse disorder. Alcoholism and ADHD also have shared genes in common.


While ADHD and substance abuse appear to be correlated for a variety of reasons, at least we can say that long-term stimulant therapy doesn’t seem to increase the chances of this occurring.

~ G. Nathalee Serrles, M.A., Psychology

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