Understanding ADHD and Substance Misuse

ADHD is associated with increased risk of substance use initiation as well as abuse and dependence.

Attention deficit hyperactivity is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders in children. It is typically diagnosed in childhood and often lasts into adulthood.

A number of studies have been conducted that show a connection between childhood ADHD and risk for later substance abuse. Study findings varied due to different ages of the participants, environmental factors (those recruited from treatment centres and community survey studies). Across these studies there is a number of recurring patterns that find children with ADHD have an increased risk for substance abuse. ADHD also contributes to a faster progression from initial use to abuse, and substance abuse may follow a more aggressive development among individuals with a history of ADHD.

Those who have ADHD may be inclined to use drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with the symptoms that come with this particular disorder. Commonly, others may be prescribed stimulants to treat ADHD and become hooked. Either can lead to a cycle of addiction that is hard to diagnose and treat without medical intervention.

How does ADHD develop?

There are several factors that can affect someone's chance of developing this particular hyperactivity disorder. They include;


Decades of research show that genes play a vital role in the etiology of ADHD and it's comorbidity with other disorders. Family, twin and adoption studies show ADHD runs in families and has a high heritability of 74%.

Exposure to toxic substances

Researchers have found a connection between mothers who use tobacco products, alcohol, and other substances during pregnancy and the development of ADHD in children.

Environmental exposure

Research suggests that there is a connection between lead exposure in young children, even at low levels, and ADHD. Children with measurable blood levels of lead sometimes have difficulty with attention and experience behavioral issues that may be associated with ADHD.

By now we know one of the long term effects of ADHD is a heightened risk for substance abuse. Children with ADHD are two to three times more likely to turn to substances which isn't surprising given that the trademark of ADHD includes trouble focusing, curbing impulses and staying still, says Jeannette Friedman, LCSW, a therapist who works with families struggling with substance use issues. "So, when kids are introduced to a substance that calms them down, it feels good to them" she says. "Trying to engage in more productive behaviours to manage their ADHD, such as meditating or going for a walk, becomes much harder because a substance provides such a quick fix. There's just nothing that can compete".

Most experts agree that marijuana is the number one substance being used by teens and young adults with ADHD, with alcohol and nicotine just behind it. Dr Taskiran notes that kids with ADHD are not so much looking to get high as to self-medicate saying "These kids are more hyperactive, more impulsive, and their minds move at a much faster pace" He said. "Their brains are hungrier for these experiences because of their wiring" Being prone to impulsivity, they may also progress to addiction faster than neurotypical teens.

Managing and supporting symptoms

People who have a co-occurring condition of ADHD and substance abuse may have a difficult time when beginning recovery. To treat co-occurring, both disorders must be treated simultaneously. When one of the conditions goes untreated, the treated condition often resurfaces. It's also helpful to get organised. If you often spend your day trying to figure out where to start but wind up getting very little done by dinnertime, a new organizational approach might be in order and follow a routine.

Where to find help for substance misuse


FRANK is a support service that provides information about drugs, plus advice for people who use drugs, and their parents or carers.

Find a Frank support near you

Call the Frank helpline: 0300 123 66 00


Adfam has local support groups and helpful information online for families affected by drugs and alcohol.

Find an Adfam support group near you


DrugFAM offers phone and email support to people affected by other people's drug or alcohol misuse.

Email: office@drugfam.co.uk or call the helpline: 0300 888 3853.

Families Anonymous

Families Anonymous is based on the same principles as Alcoholics Anonymous. It runs local support groups for the family and friends of people with a drug problem.

Email: office@famanon.org.uk or call the helpline: 0207 4984 680.


Release offers free, confidential advice on drugs law for people who use drugs, and their families.

Email: ask@release.org.uk or call the helpline: 020 7324 2989.

Where to get help for drug addiction

If you want to stop taking drugs, your GP can tell you about the treatment options and services available. They can also refer you for treatment.

Find your nearest drug addiction support services

Read more about getting help with drug addiction.

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