Previous studies on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and substance abuse have had conflicting results. A study done by doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital in 2008 showed that children that are treated for ADHD have no increased risk for getting involved with substance abuse as they get older. Researchers reassured parents and doctors that there was nothing to worry about. However, the study results conflicted with other studies that said there was an increased risk for kids on ADHD medication to abuse drugs or alcohol as they got older.
Connection Between ADHD and Substance Abuse
This week, a study coming out of the same Massachusetts General Hospital links ADHD to smoking and drug and alcohol abuse problems. The researchers, under Dr. Timothy Wilens, concluded that “Overall, study participants diagnosed with ADHD had a one-and-a-half times greater risk of developing substance abuse than did control participants.” (1)
Previous data has been confusing or even misread, but this researcher states that, “Our study, which is one of the largest set of longitudinal studies of this issue to date, supports the association between ADHD and substance abuse found in several earlier studies and shows that the increased risk cannot be accounted for by co-existing factors such as other psychiatric disorders or family history of substance abuse.” (1)
The study also found that young people who had conduct disorders in addition to ADHD had three times the risk of developing substance abuse problems than those with ADHD alone.
Reasons for the Connection
There are a number of reasons why ADHD is linked to substance abuse as a child gets older. A child who is on medication for an attention deficit disorder may learn at a young age how to self-medicate themselves, and may not appreciate the seriousness of taking medication. They may learn to adjust dosages themselves, based on how they are feeling, which can easily turn into them taking pills when they are older for anything that is bothering them. Children with ADHD may also experience feelings of depression and low self-esteem, and may struggle in school and with friends. These things can combine to make them want to escape from reality or numb the pain with drugs or alcohol.
Studies like the one this week help create awareness for the long term risks someone with ADHD may face. It is important for parents and children to be aware of the increased risk of substance abuse so that they can take steps to prevent substance abuse or intervene early if it does occur.