To this day, psychiatrists and specialists are looking to see if there is a link between addiction and ADHD or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. While there is no direct genetic link between ADHD and addictive behavior, professionals working in rehabilitation centers have noticed that people with certain disorders, such as ADHD, also have a high tendency to develop an addiction problem.
Medical professionals continue the search because there has been a growing number of cases where specific disorders associated with either behavioral or mental issues are also present in those who have a serious substance dependency problem. This is in the hopes that once a clear link has been found, it could also lead to a better understanding of how best to treat and perhaps prevent the incidence of the two conditions.
What are the Symptoms of ADHD?
People known to have ADHD are generally characterized by their inability to keep still. This is also accompanied by an inability to focus, persistent inattention, and an alarming level of impulsiveness that is often detrimental.
The symptoms of ADHD as seen in children, teenagers, and young adults include:
- Significantly short attention span
- Easily distracted
- Prone to making careless mistakes
- Prominently forgetful
- Prone to losing things
- Unable to stick to repetitive, tedious, or time-consuming tasks
- Unable to listen to or carry out instructions
- Constantly need to change activity or task
- Difficulty in organizing tasks
In adults, there are a few marked differences in symptoms:
- Lack of attention to detail
- Driving need to continually start new tasks before finishing old ones
- Poor organizational skills
- Inability to focus or prioritize
- Continually losing or misplacing things
- Difficulty keeping quiet
- Great urge to speak out of turn
- Interrupting others
- Mood swings
- Quick temper
- Inability to deal with stress
- Extreme impatience
A distinct quality of ADHD is also pronounced impulsiveness, which could manifest as:
- Being unable to sit still
- Uneasy in calm or quiet surroundings
- Constantly fidgeting
- Being unable to concentrate on tasks
- Excessive physical movement
- Excessive talking
- Being unable to wait their turn
- Acting without thinking
- Interrupting conversations
- Little or no sense of danger
- Disregard known consequences
These impulsive characteristics often lead people to think that the afflicted person is a troublemaker, has no discipline, or is simply inconsiderate of others. In reality, people with ADHD are often unable to control whatever impulses they feel. This is reflected in both actions and speech.
ADHD is a disorder that belongs to the developmental type, meaning they typically manifest during childhood and will continue well into adulthood with moderate to little improvement. Some may think that because ADHD has the tendency to affect concentration and short-term memory, a person who has it will have difficulty learning. While this may be true to a certain extent, as people with ADHD will definitely not be considered academic models, there are many people who have ADHD that are surprisingly intelligent in their own way and are only underachievers. Since they cannot perform academically in the traditional way expected of students.
How Common is ADHD?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study that collected data running from 2016 to 2019 relevant to the prevalence of ADHD in the US. The data shows that compared to an earlier study done in the run-up from 2007 to 2011 that documented at least 6.4 million Americans as having ADHD. The studies performed from 2016 to 2019 only showed a figure of 6 million Americans as having ADHD.
A disturbing fact taken from the study indicated that 6 in 10 children who had ADHD also had at least one other emotional, mental, or behavioral disorder.
These disorders include:
- 51.5% have behavioral or conduct problems
- 45% have a learning disorder
- 32.7% have anxiety problems
- 16.8% have depression
- 13.7% have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
- 1.2% have Tourette syndrome
Studies performed on adults proved to be more complex as there were many adults who had ADHD and other co-occurring mental health conditions that served to mask the symptoms of ADHD. These conditions that proved to be more prominent during diagnosis include:
- Anxiety disorder
- Mood disorder
- Impulse control issues
Will ADHD Lead People to Substance Abuse?
Researchers have long been looking for a direct link between ADHD and the development of substance abuse issues in people who have them. This is because there is a high incidence of people who suffer from mental and behavioral issues who also have a co-occurring substance abuse disorder.
Psychologists, however, stress that just because a child has ADHD, it is not a guarantee that substance abuse is sure to follow later on during the teen years. In fact, many psychologists are bringing forth evidence that early treatment of ADHD may decrease the risk of the child developing a tendency towards substance abuse as they grow up.
There is a sad pattern that many psychologists have noted about the connection between ADHD and substance abuse. There is a high likelihood that people who have ADHD and develop a substance abuse disorder, later on, did so because they were looking for a way to be normal. During interviews, a surprisingly large number of adults who had ADHD admitted that they started taking substances in an effort to calm their brains long enough so they could do what everyone else was doing, such as just sitting down and listening to others.
Many admitted that they were unable to hold down a job or have a relationship because they would always be accused of not paying attention or not even listening when someone was talking to them. To compensate for this, many turn to substances that would quiet their thoughts for a time so they could engage in social activity. This would almost always mean drinking alcohol, as the sedative effect allowed their brains to slow down enough to behave like everyone else around them.
This is the main reason why psychologists are urging for early treatment of ADHD once it is established. Not only will this lessen the risk of developing a substance abuse issue later on in life, but it will also equip the person with coping skills and strategies. These coping skills and strategies will help them manage their situation as they get older. This will also allow them to enjoy a better quality of life even while afflicted with ADHD.
Due to the fact that most people who take substances with sedative or depressant effects are actually trying to “cure” the symptoms of their ADHD, this is being looked at as a form of self-medication. Self-medication is not only ill-advised but also the primary reason why people with ADHD also develop a substance abuse disorder in the first place.
Is Self-Medication for ADHD Dangerous?
ADHD is typically treated with stimulant medications, in conjunction with talking therapy and other approaches that ease the mind and help the person focus more. The increased stimulation from the stimulant medication reduces the need for external stimulation, improving focus and concentration while reducing hyperactivity.
This fact is apparently lost on those who use alcohol to try to “quiet” their minds so that they are able to briefly pay attention to others before alcohol inebriation sets in. Self-medication in this manner is not advised because of the false belief that it is actually helping when it really is not. Therefore, it’s only leading to an alcohol dependency.
To make matters worse, alcohol impairment has the potential to aggravate the symptoms of ADHD, including:
- Difficulty or loss of focus
- Cognitive function impairment
- Impaired decision-making
- Impaired memory
- Speech pattern disruption
The only time that medication for ADHD is acceptable and safe is if it was prescribed by a physician. Self-medicating with substances is never a good idea because these substances could only aggravate the symptoms of ADHD, or cause damage to the body and lead to a complication later on. With alcohol, there is no true beneficial effect for ADHD, and it could only make things worse.
People that are known to have an alcohol use disorder admit that it is next to impossible for them to resist the urge to take alcohol. Furthermore, this is made so much worse for people who have ADHD, as their reasoning, memory, and ability to logically avoid dangerous decisions are further degraded.
There are also those who believe engaging in marijuana use could help ease the symptoms of ADHD. Not only is there no medical evidence to support this claim, but just like alcohol, using marijuana to treat ADHD could only make it worse. Marijuana has heavy depressant properties that will adversely affect the cognitive function of the brain which could cause the following effects:
- Significantly lessen a person’s ability to focus or concentrate
- Diminish impulse control
- Compromise a person’s ability to engage in reasoning and logic
- Temporarily impair memory
Westwind Recovery® Can Help You With Your Co-occurring Issues
Dealing with a serious condition such as a substance abuse disorder is already difficult in itself. Having a co-occurring condition alongside it just makes everything worse. Fortunately, we have helped people with this issue before, and we have helped them on the way to recovery, and we can help you as well. Our experience has given us a better insight into this, and we can certainly use this insight to help you. Contact us today to get started.
Dr. Deena is the Chief Clinical Officer of Westwind Recovery®, an award-winning outpatient treatment center in Los Angeles where she oversees the clinical and administrative program and treatment methods. Dr. Deena is a doctor of psychology and licensed clinical social worker since 1993. LCSW #20628. Originally from the East Coast, Dr. Deena has worked running treatment centers, worked as a therapist in psychiatric hospitals as well as school settings and currently has a thriving private practice in the LA area. Dr. Deena has appeared regularly on the Dr. Phil Show as an expert since 2003. She has also been featured on many other TV shows, podcasts and has contributed to written publications as well as podcasts.