Are Bipolar Teens At Greater Risk for Drug and Alcohol Abuse?

By Paul Gaita 09/22/16

A new study examined the link between the chronic mental illness and substance use disorders in young people.

Are Bipolar Teens At Greater Risk for Drug and Alcohol Abuse?

A new study suggests that teenagers with bipolar disorder may also be more susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse as they grow older.

Researchers from Boston’s MassGeneral Hospital for Children focused on two groups of young people—105 with bipolar disorder, and a control group of 98 without the condition—all of whom were on average 14 years of age. Of the former group, 34% also had a substance use disorder with either drugs or alcohol, as did 4% of the control group. 

Five years after the initial survey of both groups, the researchers contacted 68 members of the study group with bipolar disorder and 81 members of the control group. A second survey revealed that almost half of the members from the former group were also experiencing some kind of substance use disorder, while only 26% of the control group struggled with similar issues.

The data suggested to the study's authors that individuals with persistent bipolar symptoms were at a greater risk for substance abuse than those who did not have the condition.

The study also examined the link between bipolar disorder and conduct disorder, which is defined by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) as having "great difficulty following rules and behaving in a socially acceptable way."

According to the study's authors, individuals who exhibit both bipolar and conduct disorder had an even greater risk of substance abuse, including cigarettes. 

Additionally, the study looked at the effect of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) on individuals with bipolar disorder to determine if this condition had any influence on substance abuse. “We were surprised to find that conduct disorder, but not ADHD, played such a large role in [increasing the risk] of substance use disorder,” said Dr. Timothy Wilens, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at MassGeneral Hospital for Children and the study’s lead researcher.

Wilens further suggested that conduct disorder might be at the root of excessive drinking and drug use in teens with bipolar disorder as they become young adults.

Bipolar disorder is defined as a chronic mental illness that causes dramatic shifts in an individual’s mood that affects thoughts and energy. The moods are characterized as high, or manic episodes, and low, or depressive episodes. Approximately 3.9% of the adult population of the United States is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Though the average age of onset is approximately 25 years, the disorder can occur at any point in life. Data has suggested that 2.5% of teens between the ages of 13 and 18 suffer from the condition.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.