Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD is a widely misunderstood neurodevelopmental disorder that affects a person’s ability to direct and maintain their focus. Most Americans only became aware of ADHD beginning in the late 1970s. Back then it was called Minimal Brain Dysfunction and psychiatrists found that prescription amphetamines like Dexedrine, and later Adderall, helped to counteract many of its symptoms.
Among other things, ADHD affects the brain’s ability to prioritize stimuli. This can make it challenging for a person with ADHD to “tune out” distractions or filter important information from background noise. There is also an element of emotional dysregulation in ADHD, but these symptoms are more often seen in children than adults (in the form of hyperactivity and “acting out”). Medicines like Adderall can counteract both of these qualities of distractibility and emotional volatility.
Misunderstandings About ADHD
For many years it was mistakenly believed that ADHD was simply a discipline issue or a lack of willpower and that children would simply “grow out of it”. We now know that is not the case. What was actually happening is that (some) children with ADHD growing up in a world where most people do not have ADHD simply adapted to their environment. They developed coping mechanisms, some more helpful than others, and they managed to get by.
Today, we understand that ADHD is a permanent brain disorder that no one “outgrows”. While there is no cure for ADHD at this time, there are numerous effective interventions that can help people with the condition function more effectively. One of the most effective and most popular of these interventions, particularly in the United States, is prescription medications. Most often, amphetamines like Adderall, methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta, Focalin), and lisdexamfetamine (Vyvanse).
While amphetamines are often effective in treating ADHD, these drugs also have a high potential for abuse. This article looks at the addictive potential of these drugs and the possible connections between ADHD and addiction to Adderall or other drugs and alcohol.
Is There A Connection Between ADHD and Addiction?
Per the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about 9.4% of American children have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. The number of adults with a similar diagnosis is around 8 million, or approximately 5% of the U.S. population. Research suggests that people with ADHD are as much as three times as likely to develop a substance use disorder than the population as a whole. The reasons for this are complex.
ADHD affects the executive thinking functions of the brain. The areas of the brain where higher-order thinking occurs are responsible for decision-making and impulse control among other things. People with ADHD are more likely to do things on impulse at times, without thinking through the potential consequences. It’s easy to see how that could get one into trouble quickly if they are offered illegal drugs.
Possible reasons why people with ADHD are more susceptible to addiction:
- Difficulties with impulse control and decision-making abilities.
- Boredom and restlessness are common in people with ADHD and can trigger addiction.
- Depression, anxiety or other mood disorders may or may not be related to ADHD.
- Behavioral problems at work or school which lead to social ostracization.
Concerns About Adderall Addiction and Other ADHD Meds
There is no question that there’s good cause for concern about the millions of Americans being prescribed amphetamines. Whether they have legitimate ADHD diagnoses or not, these drugs have a high potential for abuse and can be dangerous. According to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the number of emergency room visits involving ADHD stimulant medications more than doubled from 13,379 to 31,244 visits between 2005-2010 alone.
This raises some difficult questions. We know that prescription stimulants, including amphetamines, are effective at controlling the symptoms of ADHD. Millions of children and adults have found some relief with these medicines and the results are measurable. At the same time, we also know that people with ADHD are more vulnerable to developing substance use disorders. This is compounded by the fact that the most effective medications for ADHD symptoms thus far happen to be controlled substances with abuse potential.
Facts and statistics about ADHD and Addiction:
- People with ADHD are as much as three times as likely to develop an addiction.
- ADHD is 5-10 times more common among people with alcohol use disorders.
- Among polyaddicted individuals (alcohol and other drugs) about 25% have ADHD.
- Some newer ADHD medications, like Strattera, do not have addictive potential.
Does ADHD Cause Addiction?
No, it’s not fair to say that ADHD itself is a cause of addiction. Attention Deficit Disorder and substance use disorder are two separate conditions. One does not directly cause the other. However, there is ample research that suggests that people with ADHD are more vulnerable to developing substance use disorders for a number of reasons.
While ADHD does not cause addiction, it is especially important for people with ADHD or ADD and their loved ones to be aware of the risks of substance abuse. This is especially true for teenagers and young people with ADHD and particularly for those who are prescribed a controlled substance for their ADHD symptoms.
This does not mean that people with ADHD should never take these medications – but they or their parents or guardians should discuss concerns about addiction with their doctor when deciding. The most important element here is awareness. Whether a person with ADD takes a prescription medication like Adderall or not, they must remain vigilant about the risk of addiction.
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