ADHD and Substance Use Disorder

Man Standing

Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a disorder that affects someone’s ability to concentrate or leads to hyperactivity and impulsivity [1]. While everyone has difficulty concentrating or is impulsive at times, ADHD is a consistent pattern and interferes with someone’s ability to function in work, school, or in relationships.

ADHD at a Glance

These are the three core symptoms of ADHD:

Inattention- This means someone can’t stay on task or has a hard time staying organized. This is not because of intellectual impairment or defiant behavior. Some examples of this include losing important things consistently, forgetting about daily activities, or having a problem paying attention during conversations or during play [1].

Hyperactivity- This means that someone is moving around a lot, even when it’s not appropriate. This includes fidgeting, walking around, or being unable to play or complete activities quietly.

Impulsivity- This is when someone makes decisions without thinking through the potential consequences. For example, a child with ADHD may steal a toy from a friend. While this example is relatively low-risk, impulsive behavior can be dangerous depending on the consequences of someone’s behavior.

While ADHD has become a term that people throw around loosely, this diagnosis can only be given by a qualified professional after a thorough evaluation. Professionals who can complete these exams are doctors, psychologists, or psychiatrists.

While ADHD can make someone’s life difficult enough, research is beginning to show that children and adolescents with this condition are more likely to develop a substance use disorder (SUD) [2].

SUD is a diagnosis given when someone is addicted to or abusing substances. While addiction is often associated with drugs or alcohol, substance abuse can also include nicotine [1].

Possible Explanations

Husband supporting wife with ADHD and substance use disorderEven though researchers are not entirely sure why people with ADHD are more prone to addiction than other people, there are a few ideas. These are:

Self-medicating- Some research shows that adolescents with ADHD and SUD use substances in order to improve their mood or help them sleep. Similarly, adults with ADHD report higher rates of nicotine dependence in order to help them stay on task at work [2].

Genetics- Some research has shown that the use of nicotine or alcohol during pregnancy can increase the risk that the baby will have ADHD. Addiction is also believed to have a genetic component [2].

Stimulants- Stimulants are a type of prescription drug that people with ADHD are prescribed. There is some concern that stimulants are highly likely to be abused.

Understanding what causes people with ADHD to be more likely to struggle with addiction is important because it can help professionals develop better ways to prevent and treat these conditions. However, even though the link between these two disorders isn’t fully understood yet, there are still treatment options available that have proven to be helpful.

When someone is diagnosed with ADHD and SUD, they are considered to have a co-occurring condition. This means that someone is struggling with two or more disorders at the same time. It is important for someone to get treatment for both, as co-occurring disorders often feed into each other.

If someone is struggling with SUD and ADHD, seeing a mental health professional, a psychiatrist, and a doctor can be a good place to start. Recommendations for care will vary depending on the severity of the substance abuse. Regardless of how severe someone’s struggle with SUD and ADHD, there is always hope.


[1] National Institute of Mental Health. (2019, September). Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.

[2] Zulauf, C. A., Sprich, S. E., Safren, S. A., & Wilens, T. E. (2014). The complicated relationship between attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and substance use disorders. Current psychiatry reports, 16(3), 436.

About the Author:

Samantha Bothwell PhotoSamantha Bothwell, LMFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, writer, explorer, and lipstick aficionado. She became a therapist after doing her own healing work so she could become whole after spending many years living with her mind and body disconnected. She has focused her clinical work to support the healing process of survivors of sexual violence and eating disorders. She is passionate about guiding people in their return to their truest Self so they can live their most authentic, peaceful life.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental, and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on January 6, 2021
Reviewed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 6, 2021
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About Baxter Ekern

Baxter Ekern is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He contributed and helped write a major portion of Addiction Hope and is responsible for the operations of the website.