The Connection Between ADHD and Addiction

The Connection Between ADHD and Addiction

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adhd and addiction

This post was originally published on December 11, 2015.

I recently read a piece in Vice that discussed the connection between ADHD and addiction. Although this isn’t a new concept, the idea that an eight-year-old struggling to pay attention in class could be the sign of potential alcoholism and drug addiction is a sobering thought. The question is this: does having ADHD lead kids down the path of addiction or is it the medication used to treat ADHD—stimulants—what sets them up for substance abuse?

Chicken or Egg?

As a former second grader who battled Attention Deficit Disorder (now known exclusively as ADHD), this question piqued my interest (and for someone with attention problems, this isn’t easy to do). In my case, medication didn’t lead to addiction because, no matter how many bad report cards or diagnostic tests came back begging for a solution, my parents refused to treat me with drugs. As far as my hippie mother was concerned, there wasn’t anything that couldn’t be solved with the right regime of vitamins and a macrobiotic diet. And while that gave me a great foundation for healthful eating, it didn’t help with my struggles academically. And guess what? I still ended up becoming an alcoholic.

Adults with ADHD

The article also addresses a more recent discovery, which is the concept of adult ADHD. Apparently, until somewhat recently, ADHD was seen exclusively as a childhood issue—something that dissipated after puberty. However, a Massachusetts General Hospital study suggests that 15 to 25 percent of adult addicts and alcoholics still struggle with ADHD.

But then are these adults using alcohol and drugs to manage their ADHD or is their inability to pay attention related to their substance abuse? I suppose this could easily be answered by looking at how many had a childhood diagnosis—prior to the introduction of drugs and alcohol—that showed ADHD preceded the addiction and then how many took stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall. But either way, the news piece says, people dealing with adult ADHD are looking at a risk “two to three times higher” for substance abuse than those who don’t have it.

Talk to Your Doctor

As an adult who still struggles with attention problems and is also a recovering alcoholic, I think it’s important for people to understand that the treatment for ADHD is generally a stimulant (although there are some non-stimulant alternatives). In other words, adults who have ADHD are often prescribed a controlled substance, which might be a conflict for some in recovery (say, someone who is trying to get off meth). Of course, with any medical issue, the way a person treats an illness or disorder is between that person and his or her doctor (and possibly sponsor).

The Take Away

While understanding that my struggles in school and lack of interest in my future as a kid might have been part of the reason I drank so much, it doesn’t really help me now. But perhaps this can help parents understand what is going on with their kids and the potential issues that could arise from it down the road if not addressed.

While life certainly hasn’t been awful for me, between struggling with addiction and still being in school well into my 30s, I think it’s fair to say it hasn’t been easy. Not that it is easy for anyone (I am only saying that because I feel like I am supposed to; I actually don’t agree) but I have to wonder if it could have been smoother had I been properly medicated earlier. Still, who really knows? The truth is, even with medication, life can still be a struggle. And if I ever question that, I can just look back and remember how long it took me to write this article.

Photo courtesy of DougRobichaud/Unsplash

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  1. There has been research to indicate that the ADHD meds contribute to later addiction. Here is a paragraph from a paper I wrote:

    Nadine Lambert (2005) conducted a 28-year longitudinal study of ADHD children and normal controls. The participants were followed through childhood and adolescence; and then interviewed 3 times as adults. When other variables were accounted for, the severity of ADHD increased the odds of dependence on the substances in the investigation: tobacco, cocaine, amphetamine and cocaine/amphetamine. Lambert also found that: “Stimulant treatment increased the odds of dependence on tobacco, cocaine, and cocaine/amphetamine. . . . ADHD and problem behavior did not increase the odds of either daily smoking or lifetime use of any of the substances.” Breggin (2008, 303) commented that Lambert’s findings indicated that: “It is not ADHD but the treatment for ADHD that puts children at risk for future drug abuse.”

    Here’s a link to the abstract of Lambert’s article: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/springer/ehpp/2005/00000007/00000003/art00003

    And even James Swanson, a long-time supporter of ADHD medications, has now admitted there seems to be no long-term benefit to ADHD medication;

    Within an article by Daniel Goleman (2014), Swanson was quoted as saying: “There are no long-term, lasting benefits from taking A.D.H.D. medications.” Swanson and Goleman were referring to a 2013 follow-up study of the Preschool ADHD Treatment Study (PATS) that concluded: “Medication status during follow-up, on versus off, did not predict symptom severity change from year 3 to year 6 after adjustment for other variables.” (Riddle et al. 2013)

    The Goleman article was in the New York Times: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/05/12/exercising-the-mind-to-treat-attention-deficits/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=2

    Here is a link to the Riddle abstract: http://www.jaacap.com/article/S0890-8567%2812%2900993-8/abstract

    My article is available at: http://faith-seeking-understanding.org/resources/adhd-an-imbalance-of-fire-over-watr-or-a-case-of-the-fidgets/

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About Author

Danielle Stewart is a Los Angeles-based writer and recovering comedian. She has written for Showtime, E!, and MTV, as well as print publications such as Us Weekly and Life & Style Magazine. She returned to school and is currently working her way towards a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. She loves coffee, Law & Order SVU, and her emotional support dog, Benson.