ADHD and Self Medication

Researchers have found that more people are turning to self-medicating for ADHD treatments. Self-medication is a symptom typically associated with a substance (SUD) or alcohol use disorder (AUD). ADHD self-medication has become increasingly common, especially among teens and young adults.

There has always been a relationship between substance use disorders and mental health disorders. In some cases, existing mental health conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), can lead to the development of SUD. In other cases, having a SUD or AUD leads to an increased risk of developing a mental health illness. Because both conditions are considered mental health illnesses, it can be difficult to distinguish between the two disorders. They often present with very similar symptoms and side effects related to cognitive behaviors.

On an orange background, a diagram of a person's brain represents the effects of ADHD and self medication.

What is ADHD?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is one of the most commonly presenting mental health conditions among adolescents, teens and young adults. In fact, ADHD affects an estimated 6-9% of children and adolescents worldwide. Initially, ADHD was thought to have only existed during a person’s childhood and youth. Medical experts assumed the psychological condition would eventually taper off as people began to mature. However, studies have shown that ADHD and many of its symptoms can continue into adulthood.

ADHD is characterized by the inability to pay attention, easily wandering off task and severe disorganization. This can often interfere with the normal functioning and development of a young person. There are three main types of ADHD.

  • Predominately Inattentive Presentation: This type of ADHD occurs in people who have difficulty staying on task, focusing and organization. People with this type of disorder often fail to pay close attention to details, have problems organizing given tasks and gets distracted easily sometimes forgetting daily responsibilities.
  • Predominately Hyperactive/Impulsive Presentation: This type of ADHD is portrayed in people who exhibit excessive movements such as fidgeting, tapping, talkativeness and impulsivity.
  • Combination Presentation: When both criteria of ADHD types are met, people can present symptoms from both categories of ADHD.

Common signs of ADHD that can overlap with SUD:

  • Not being able to focus
  • Poor and impaired judgment (also a characteristic of SUD)
  • Hyperactivity
  • Impulsivity (also a characteristic of SUD)
  • Thrill-seeking behaviors
  • The need for immediate gratification
  • The search for pleasure-seeking experiences (also a characteristic of SUD)
  • Novelty seeking (also a characteristic of SUD)
  • Sensation seeking (also a characteristic of SUD)
  • Overindulgence regardless of the consequences

The relationship between Substance abuse and ADHD

SUD is among one of the most common and most problematic co-occurring conditions in people with ADHD. Both disorders are considered to be mental health conditions defined by neurocognitive deficits. Research has found that in people with ADHD, the limbic reward system in the brain isn’t stimulating enough to hold their attention. This leads to people turning to substances such as drugs and alcohol in an attempt to find a greater sense of stimulation and pleasure. This need for extraordinary stimulation intensifies the risk of developing a SUD or AUD.

About 15% of young people with ADHD also have a SUD co-occurring condition. Studies have shown that adolescents with ADHD are at a higher risk for developing and SUD. The risk was four times higher in young people with a combination of ADHD and other mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression and trauma-related illnesses.

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Contributing factors that affect the combined development of SUD and ADHD:

  • Shared neurobiological mechanism and effects on the brain
  • Difficulties in psychosocial functioning
  • A dual diagnosis with other mental health disorders
  • Underlying neuropsychological deficits
  • The self-medication hypothesis
  • Behavioral, emotional and life factors

Self Medicating ADHD

Symptoms of ADHD can be debilitating to everyday areas of personal and professional life. This had lead many young people diagnosed with ADHD to use drugs and alcohol as a way of self-medicating to manage their range of emotions. It is often the case for young people when they are in an environment of social and peer pressure. Using drugs and drinking alcohol is seen as a way to feel “normal” away from the socially unacceptable characteristics related to ADHD.

Alcohol is a common substance of choice when it comes to self-medication. It is common for young people to turn to alcohol to dull or subside the feelings of anxiety and depression, which are usually associated with ADHD. Consistent ADHD self-medication can lead to the development of addiction. Addictive behaviors typically provide a burst of dopamine that can feel extremely satisfying to the brain’s reward center. This is often the reason why people diagnosed with ADHD are also engaging in addictive activities and behaviors such as drugs and alcohol.

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We specialize in treating addiction and other co-occurring disorders, such as PTSD. Our Admissions specialists are available to walk you through the best options for treating your addiction.

Treatment strategies for Co-occurring ADHD and Substance Use Disorders

Having ADHD can often make a substance use disorder or alcohol use disorder more difficult to treat. They present with similar symptoms that it can be difficult to distinguish between the two mental health illnesses. Successful treatment for both conditions requires a multidisciplinary approach that includes medication and intensive therapy. Hotel California by the Sea offers a full continuum of treatments for people experiencing co-occurring mental health disorders such as SUD and ADHD.

During detox and residential treatments, patients have the option of medication assisted treatments to address the symptoms of ADHD and SUD. Stimulant medications are the most commonly prescribed and are available in immediate releases and sustained released formulations dependent on the severity of the addiction. Immediate-release medications can control ADHD symptoms for 3-4 hours and sustained-release medications can control symptoms for 6-10 hours.

Outpatient programs such as PHP and IOP provide intensive therapy treatments. Treatments such as CBT, DBT and EMDR therapy are evidence-proven methods to help substance abusers identify the psychological root causes of their addiction. Hotel California by the Sea specializes in high-quality treatments to help people experiencing a co-occurring diagnosis of SUD and ADHD.