Teens With ADHD at Risk of Substance Abuse

ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) is a fairly common condition characterized by varying degrees of hyperactivity, lack of impulse control and an inability to maintain focus or attention. The disorder typically arises in childhood and may or may not continue into adolescence or adulthood. In early 2013, a multi-university research team released the results of a detailed study that examined the connections between ADHD and substance abuse in teenagers. Among other things, this team concluded that teenagers with active or prior symptoms of the disorder abuse various substances and smoke cigarettes significantly more frequently than teenagers without current or prior ADHD symptoms.

ADHD Basics

ADHD is more of a spectrum of conditions than a single, rigidly defined disorder. Some people with an ADHD diagnosis mostly exhibit signs and symptoms of hyperactive or impulsive behavior; other people with a diagnosis mostly exhibit signs and symptoms of an inability to maintain attention. In a third group, people diagnosed with the disorder have a fairly evenly distributed mix of a variety of ADHD symptoms. About 11 percent of all U.S. children between the ages of 4 and 17 have received an ADHD diagnosis, according to the latest figures compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Boys receive such a diagnosis more than twice as often as girls. Anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of children and teens with the disorder still have at least some symptoms of their condition in adulthood.
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Substance Abuse Basics

Substance abuse is the general term for any dangerous or unwarranted use of substances that alter the normal function of the human brain. Specific forms of alteration caused by this type of abuse include changes in perception, changes in basic thought processes, changes in behavior, and changes in the ability to properly control the actions of the body. Substance abuse poses a danger on several different levels. In the short- or long-term, the brain (or body) alterations caused by a given substance can produce a serious, severe, or fatal direct impact on the health of an affected individual, or contribute to behaviors or actions that lead to serious, severe or fatal health problems. Repeated use of a given substance can also produce physical dependence or addiction and lock the affected individual in a recurring cycle of abuse that overrides all other life priorities and severely impairs participation in a wide variety of personal and formal relationships.

Results of Current Research

In a study published in early 2013 in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, researchers from seven U.S. universities conducted an eight-year examination of the substance use habits of roughly 600 children, half of whom had received an ADHD diagnosis. The period of this examination covered the time frame between childhood and adolescence. After reviewing their compiled data, the authors of the study made a variety of findings. First, they concluded that, by the age of 15, 35 percent of teenagers with current or prior cases of ADHD use at least one type of substance; by comparison, only 20 of age peers unaffected by ADHD use any type of substance. They also concluded that 10 percent of teenagers with current or prior ADHD use substances in a manner consistent with the criteria for diagnosable substance abuse; only 3 percent of teens unaffected by ADHD meet these same criteria.

The authors of the study also made several findings regarding the use of specific substances. For instance, they concluded that, by the age of 17, 13 percent of teens affected by ADHD have either abuse or dependency issues related to marijuana; by comparison, only 7 percent of teens unaffected by the disorder have these issues. Alcohol use rates between both groups of teenagers are roughly equal. The study’s authors also examined rates of tobacco use and concluded that 17 percent of teens affected by ADHD smoke on a daily basis, while only 8 percent of teens unaffected by the disorder smoke every day.


The authors of the study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry don’t know why teens with current or prior cases of ADHD use/abuse various substances more frequently than other teens. However, they point to several potential explanations, which include ADHD-related concerns such as relatively low grades in school, a strong tendency toward impulsive behavior and problems forming or maintaining stable peer relationships. In an important side note, teens affected by ADHD who no longer take medication for the disorder apparently have the same substance abuse risks as teens who still take ADHD medication.

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