Untreated ADHD is a substance abuse risk – let’s stop demonising diagnosis

Adults with ADHD are almost three times more likely to have a substance abuse disorder than adults without ADHD. With growing numbers of UK adults now on waiting lists for ADHD diagnosis, addiction rehabilitation service Rehabs UK says that those struggling with both ADHD and substance abuse must receive formal diagnosis and specialist treatment faster.

illustrated graphic showing three side-profile line drawings of human heads in a row, each with an addiction next to theirbrain. From left to right: pills, alcohol, cigarettes

Studies have found that children with ADHD have a higher likelihood of developing problems with substance abuse, particularly alcohol. One study found that 40% of children with ADHD began using alcohol at an average age of 14.9 years, compared to 22% of children without ADHD, while young adults with ADHD are more likely to use alcohol excessively compared to those without ADHD.

Speaking to Rehabs UK on the reasons for the link between ADHD and substance abuse, co-founder of ADHDadultUK Dr. James Brown says that “Many adults with ADHD have issues with impulsive behaviour and risk perception, which may lead to earlier exposure to drugs. 

“Beyond this, many adults do report that they ‘self-medicate’ with substances to deal with their ADHD and associated psychiatric issues, with one study reporting more than one-third of adolescents and young adults endorsed using cigarettes and substances for self medication. “ 

“As the brains of people with ADHD often feel like they cannot “switch off,” engaging with substances which either provide dopamine (like nicotine and cocaine) to cause ‘paradoxical calming’, or slowing down of thought processes, or use substances that are intoxicants as these can temporarily  relieve  much of the internal hyperactivity and repetitive thought patterns which can be distressing.” 

As common ADHD medications such as methylphenidate and amphetamines are controlled substances, some people may worry that these can lead to addiction. However, research shows that individuals with ADHD who are being treated with medication are less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol compared to those who are not receiving treatment. 

“ADHD diagnosis and access to treatment is essential to battling substance abuse in those with ADHD.” Rehabs UK founder, Lester Morse, says in a new statement.

While it is difficult to establish exact waiting times for ADHD diagnosis in the NHS, it is widely reported that ADHD services are struggling to keep up with demand. In a recent survey conducted by the House of Commons, 82% of respondents stated that current waiting times for ADHD diagnosis are not adequate. Consequently, many individuals with ADHD may not receive the assistance they require.

It’s estimated that 23% of adults being treated for substance use disorders have ADHD, despite ADHD adults only making up around 3-4% of the general population.

“ADHD symptoms can lead to impulsive behaviour, difficulty concentrating, and problems with organisation and planning. These symptoms can make it challenging for patients to engage in substance abuse treatment, adhere to a treatment plan, and cope with triggers.” Morse goes on to say. “Without appropriate diagnosis and treatment of ADHD, patients continue to struggle with these symptoms, making it more difficult to achieve and maintain sobriety.”

Current guidelines advise that for patients struggling with ADHD and substance abuse disorder, treatment of both conditions should happen simultaneously.

Rehabs UK now offers referrals to the UK’s first specialist addiction treatment services for people with ADHD. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction issues, you can contact Rehabs UK for a free, no-commitment assessment that simplifies the support options available.

Pssst – you can take a look at my post on tips and resources for managing ADHD symptoms here.

Leave a Reply