Guide to ADHD and Addiction

Published On: May 18, 2017

In this guide, we outline the link between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and the increased risk of developing an addiction to drugs and alcohol. The aim of this guide is to educate our readers on the link between ADHD and addiction, and the potential solutions to this problem. We also provide advice on ADHD treatment following the successful treatment of an addiction experienced in adulthood.

Below, we list the learning objectives we aim to cover in this guide:

  • An outline of the risks of addiction for people with ADHD
  • Why Are People With ADHD more likely to abuse substances?
  • How to prevent the problem
  • Treating ADHD when there is a history of substance abuse
  • Addiction to ADHD Medication

An outline of the risks of addiction for people with ADHD

The increased risk of developing an addiction for people with ADHD is unarguable. Some experts believe as many as 40 percent of people who suffer from ADHD will develop an addiction to drugs or alcohol in their lifetime. This is considerably higher than for the rest of the population. People with ADHD are particularly prone to developing an addiction to cannabis, alcohol, and stimulants such as cocaine and amphetamine. These risks usually kick in when ADHD sufferers hit adolescence, and typically around the age of 15. This first became apparent to me when I attended an alcohol rehab in London.

Why Are People With ADHD more likely to abuse substances?

Sufferers of ADHD are thought to turn to alcohol as a way of self-medicating against the symptoms of ADHD. This is particularly true for undiagnosed adult sufferers of ADHD. Abusing drugs and alcohol allow sufferers to calm their thoughts so that they may better concentrate.

Sufferers of ADHD are also known to exhibit a number of personality traits that are thought to encourage substance misuse. These traits include impulsivity and poor social judgment. These traits may mean people who suffer from ADHD are more likely to overindulge on drugs or alcohol, without properly considering the consequences of doing so. ADHD sufferers are also likely to experience social awkwardness due to their condition. Taking drugs and drinking alcohol may be perceived as one way of ‘fitting in’ better with peers.

Experts also point to a genetic component when explaining the link between ADHD and addiction. For instance, studies have shown that relatives of ADHD sufferers are also more likely to develop an addiction to drugs or alcohol. This may be due to a mutation in genes that control novelty-seeking and risk-taking behaviours.

How to prevent the problem

The most effective way of reducing the risk of developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol is to treat the underlying ADHD. ADHD is best treated with drugs such as methylphenidate and amphetamine. When these medications are correctly taken, the risk of developing an addiction is vastly reduced. This is why people with undiagnosed ADHD are much more at risk of developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol i.e. because they do not take these medications.

Another way to prevent the addiction is to educate ADHD sufferers about their enhanced risk of developing an addiction. It is best that sufferers become known of the risk as soon as possible, and preferably before they hit adolescence. It’s important for schools and colleges to provide additional education to ADHD sufferers so that they are more aware of these risks.

It’s also important to encourage ADHD sufferers to engage in regular exercise. Regular exercise is a form of self-medication in its own right. Taking regular exercise allows ADHD sufferers to reduce the symptoms of their condition in a healthy and natural manner without drugs and alcohol. This is known to significantly reduce the urge to take drugs and alcohol.

Treating ADHD when there is a history of substance abuse

If you suffer from an addiction, it’s essential for you to be assessed for ADHD. If you suffer from ADHD, then this is likely the cause of your addiction. Merely treating your addiction will only treat the symptoms, and not the cause.

If you have developed alcoholism, you may need to undertake treatment at an alcohol rehab centre. Here, you will undertake a medically supervised detox procedure. Following this, you will benefit from a robust programme of therapy. This takes place alongside the detox procedure.

If your ADHD is not treated, you will struggle to focus on your recovery. For instance, a major component of recovery is about going to support group meetings. If you cannot concentrate on these meetings due to your ADHD, you will not remain focused on your recovery. This makes relapse ever more likely. Simply put, untreated ADHD makes your success in recovery ever more distant and unlikely.

At ADT Healthcare, we recommend you do not attempt to receive treatment for your ADHD until you’ve been in recovery for at least six weeks. Securing your recovery takes considerable work, and so it’s not advisable to complicate this task by also being treated for ADHD alongside addiction treatment.

Addiction to ADHD Medication

Once you begin your treatment for ADHD, you will need to begin to take medications that reduce the symptoms of ADHD. Many of the drugs used to treat ADHD are classed as stimulants. This means these drugs have high abuse potential.

If you are diagnosed with ADHD following the completion of addiction treatment, you will probably begin your medication regime by taking a non-stimulant such as clonidine or atomoxetine. These are generally safer and have fewer side effects than stimulants. If a non-stimulant is not sufficient, you will then be given the option to move onto a stimulant.

An extended-release formulation is generally your first port of call. Common extended-release formulations include Concerta or Daytrana skin patches. These patches release stimulants over several hours. There is thus less abuse potential when compared to immediate-release stimulants such as Ritalin.

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