What Does ADHD Have To Do With Substance Abuse?

By Victoria Kim 11/10/15

Substance abuse for adults with ADHD is drastically higher than for adults without the disorder.

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According to WebMD, there is a definitive link between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and substance abuse. The site explains that a natural tendency to engage in impulsive behavior can contribute to drug and alcohol abuse.

So, too, can the stress of dealing with ADHD, which can complicate even simple tasks. Not everyone who has ADHD is an addict. But for people like Niall Greene, who founded Adult ADHD NI, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people with Adult ADHD across Northern Ireland, the disorder explained a lot. “If I’m not getting enough stimuli, I create my own stimuli,” he told VICE.

Greene said he felt lost in life, so he turned to drugs, alcohol, and gambling. He had been through doctors, therapists, rehab, and a suicide attempt before a psychiatrist suggested that he might have ADHD.

The symptoms of ADHD include inattentiveness, impulsivity and hyperactivity, and always begin in childhood. According to WebMD, about 25% of adults who are treated for alcohol and substance abuse also have ADHD.

Past studies have demonstrated that ADHD and substance abuse disorders often go hand-in-hand. A 2010 study found that people with the disorder are more vulnerable to substance abuse disorders. The risk of substance abuse for people with ADHD is “two to three times higher” than for people without it, according to author Dr. Timothy Wilens, chief of child psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital.

A 2005 study found that 20 to 40% of adults with ADHD had a history of substance abuse. Until recently, Adult ADHD was considered a “disorder of children that dissolved when they hit puberty,” noted Dr. Howard Schubiner, who has done extensive research on the disorder.

As children get older, the disorder manifests in different ways in adulthood, he said. Hyperactivity generally does decrease, but inattention does not improve. Instead, it is internalized, Schubiner told VICE. One of the ways Adult ADHD reveals itself is through addiction.

“Due to my ADHD there was a combination of risk-taking, sensation-seeking, intensity-seeking, and impulsivity [that] left me extremely vulnerable to problem gambling as a young adult and I’ll never forget the desperate lows that followed, including depression and suicidal thoughts,” Greene wrote in his blog, Niall’s ADHD Notes.

A diagnosis can help an addict recognize patterns of addiction that stem from ADHD. “As well as recognizing vulnerabilities, identifying the patterns of poor self-control, impulsive and compulsive behaviors and by doing so I’ve been able to overcome many of the more destructive addictions and in the process, get to know and accept myself,” he wrote.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr