Millions of children throughout the United States are currently diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, more commonly referred to as ADHD. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in 2016, the number of children who had ever been diagnosed with ADHD was somewhere around 6.1 million. It was also found that boys were far more likely to be diagnosed than girls – 12.9 percent of boys were diagnosed as compared to 5.6 percent of girls. According to a national parent survey conducted in 2016, children who were diagnosed with ADHD were far more likely to simultaneously struggle with a co-occurring behavioral or mental health disorder. Roughly half (5 out of 10) children with ADHD were also diagnosed with a behavioral problem, and 3 out of every 10 struggled with anxiety. While the number of afflicted children is high, the number of children receiving adequate treatment or care is also high – 3 out of every 4 children suffering from ADHD receive either behavioral treatment or medication in order to help manage the symptoms. A national survey conducted in 2014 (and reported by the CDC) found that 9 out of every 10 children with an attention-related disorder were receiving support in the classroom, and that 6 out of every 10 were receiving life skills training or behavioral treatment. As it stands, many children who struggle with ADHD will obtain the treatment they need early on in life in order to go on and live healthy and productive lives as adults.

While the average age of diagnosis is 7 years old, roughly one-third of adults who are diagnosed with ADHD during childhood will retain the diagnosis in adulthood. In many cases, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a chronic diagnosis, and symptoms will need to be continuously managed in order for recovery to be maintained. As far as adults go, roughly 2.5 percent worldwide currently have official ADHD diagnosis. Within the United States, this specific mental health condition is reported to occur in roughly 4.4 percent of adults, though this figure is believed to be severely underreported, seeing as many adult men and women will not even think to get professionally screened for a disorder that is mistakenly believed to be a “childhood issue.” The truth is that adults with undiagnosed and untreated ADHD will face severe behavioral and mental health issues – including addiction. Substance abuse is a clinically significant symptom of untreated attention-related disorders in adulthood. A study published in the Clinical Psychology Review in 2011 found that people with ADHD were 1.5 times more likely to develop a substance abuse disorder later on in life.

15 percent of adults with ADHD had received a substance abuse or dependency disorder diagnosis. Nearly 6 percent simultaneously struggle with an alcohol abuse disorder, and between 3 and 4 percent struggle with a drug abuse or dependence disorder. There is a clear link between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and addiction.

ADHD and Addiction

Those who suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have a hard time focusing their attention on any one thing for an extended period of time, and they often experience atypical levels of impulsive or hyperactive behaviors.

Some of the more prevalent symptoms of ADHD include:

  • Being easily distracted and easily losing focus on the task at hand. 
  • Having a hard time sitting still for more than several minutes at a time. 
  • Losing train of thought or forgetting to complete tasks.
  • Difficulty focusing on one thing at a time, jumping around from task to task.
  • Having a hard time focusing on conversations, regularly interrupting others.

Teenagers and adults with undiagnosed and untreated symptoms of ADHD will often turn to substances like drugs and alcohol. When it comes to untreated mental health conditions, many will attempt to self-medicate in hopes of alleviating disruptive symptoms. Those who struggle with ADHD will have a difficult time regulating neurotransmitters within the brain that help to normalize daily functions – neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and dopamine. This leads to a lack of balance and uncomfortable feelings, which will persist unless properly medicated. Adults who struggle with undiagnosed ADHD often turn to drugs and alcohol to help them feel “normal” – even if just for a brief period of time. Some medical professionals also believe that adult sufferers of attention-related disorders will turn to chemical substances as a way of combating the inevitable feelings of boredom and restlessness they feel on a daily basis.

Does ADHD cause addiction? The short answer is “yes” – there is a direct correlation between the two disorders, and those who receive treatment for ADHD early on are far less likely to develop a substance abuse disorder later on in life. It is important to begin treating symptoms as soon as possible, even if they are not detected until late adolescence or adulthood. Once an individual is diagnosed, it will be important to develop a personalized and effective treatment plan. What works for one individual might not work for another. Some methods of successful intervention include medications (long-acting rather than short-acting), behavioral therapy, behavioral interventions, or a unique combination of all available treatment methods. If a substance abuse disorder has developed before ADHD was treated, then the type of medication used will also need to be considered. Drugs like ritalin and Adderall have a high potential for abuse – however, if they are taken as prescribed by a medical professional it is very unlikely that any problems will arise. This is where dual diagnosis treatment comes into play. Entering into a dual diagnosis treatment facility will allow individuals to be treated for both disorders at one time. Medications that are prescribed by on-staff psychiatrists will be combined with intensive therapeutic intervention and progress will be closely monitored. The goal of dual diagnosis treatment is to tackle all existing disorders by providing integrated and comprehensive care.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

One thing is certain – in order for teenagers or adults who are struggling with ADHD to be properly diagnosed and treated, they must be sober. Once a patient is sober, symptoms can be clearly addressed – before then, it will be difficult to determine which underlying symptoms are the result of a mental health condition and which are the result of substance use. Dual diagnosis treatment will be necessary for those who are struggling from both conditions concurrently. Medical professionals have found that those who take medication as prescribed to treat ADHD have a significantly lower chance of relapse, and that those who have already been diagnosed with this mental health condition can help prevent the eventual development of a substance abuse disorder by taking medication and engaging in healthy activities like regular exercise, a focus on nutrition and ongoing behavioral therapy.

At Guardian IOP we have extensive experience working with men and women of all ages who have either been diagnosed with ADHD or who have been experiencing symptoms but have never been officially diagnosed by a psychiatrist. We offer dual diagnosis care to those struggling with ADHD and addiction, and our integrated program was carefully developed to address all underlying issues while successfully reintegrating men and women back into day-to-day life without the use of chemical substances. If you or someone you love has been struggling with addiction and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or if you have been self-medicating what you believe to be an undiagnosed mental health condition, give us a call today. We will help you determine which level and type of care is most suitable to your personal needs, and get you started on your own personal journey of addiction recovery as quickly as possible.


Reviewed for accuracy by:

Anna earned her Masters of Social Work at Barry University in Miami, FL in 2017 and completed her internship in co-occurring disorders. Anna has a Bachelors of Art in Religious Studies from Naropa University and is a certified yoga and meditation instructor. Anna has received specialized training in somatic counseling with an emphasis on body-centered psychotherapy.