The Link Between ADHD and Addiction

Addictions plague many people with ADHD. Here's a comprehensive look at self-medicating ADHD with alcohol and drugs plus treatment of ADHD and addictions.

It is common for people with ADHD to turn to addictive substances such as alcohol, marijuana, heroin, prescription tranquilizers, pain medication, nicotine, caffeine, sugar, cocaine and street amphetamines in attempts to soothe their restless brains and bodies. Using substances to improve our abilities, help us feel better, or decrease and numb our feelings is called self-medicating.

Putting Out Fires With Gasoline

The problem is that self-medicating works at first. It provides the person with ADHD relief from their restless bodies and brains. For some, drugs such as nicotine, caffeine, cocaine, diet pills and "speed" enable them to focus, think clearly, and follow through with ideas and tasks. Others chose to soothe their ADHD symptoms with alcohol and marijuana. People who abuse substances, or have a history of substance abuse are not "bad" people. They are people who desperately attempt to self-medicate their feelings, and ADHD symptoms. Self-medicating can feel comforting. The problem is, that self-medicating brings on a host of addiction-related problems which over time make people's lives much more difficult. What starts out as a "solution", can cause problems including addiction, impulsive crimes, domestic violence, increased high risk behaviors, lost jobs, relationships, families, and death. Too many people with untreated ADHD, learning, and perceptual disabilities are incarcerated, or dying from co-occurring addiction.

Self-medicating ADHD with alcohol and other drugs is like putting out fires with gasoline. You have pain and problems that are burning out of control, and what you use to put out the fires is gasoline. Your life may explode as you attempt to douse the flames of ADD.

A 1996 article in American Scientists states that "In the United States alone there are 18 million alcoholics, 28 million children of alcoholics, 6 million cocaine addicts, 14.9 million who abuse other substances, 25 million addicted to nicotine."1

Who Will Become Addicted?

Everyone is vulnerable to abusing any mind altering substance to diminish the gut wrenching feelings that accompany ADHD. There are a variety of reasons why one person becomes addicted and another does not. No single cause for addictions exists; rather, a combination of factors is usually involved. Genetic predisposition, neurochemistry, family history, trauma, life stress, and other physical and emotional problems contribute. Part of what determines who becomes addicted and who does not is the combination and timing of these factors. People may have genetic predispositions for alcoholism, but if they choose not to drink they will not become alcoholic. The same is true for drug addictions. If an individual never smokes pot, snorts cocaine, shoots or smokes heroin, he or she will never become a pot, coke, or heroin addict.

The bottom line is that people with ADHD as a whole are more likely to medicate themselves with substances than those who do not have ADHD. Drs. Hallowell and Ratey estimate that 8 to 15 million Americans suffer from ADD, other researchers estimated that as many as 30-50% of them use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate their ADHD symptoms.2 This does not include those who use food, and compulsive behaviors to self-medicate their ADD brains and the many painful feelings associated with ADHD. When we see ADD it is important to look for substance abuse and addictions. And when we see substance abuse and addictions, it is equally important to look for ADHD.

Prevention and Early Intervention

"Just Say No!" may sound simple, but if it was that simple we would not have millions of children, adolescents, and adults using drugs every day. For some their biological and emotional attraction to drugs is so powerful, that they cannot conceptualize the risks of self-medication. This is especially true for the person with ADHD who may have an affinity for risky, stimulating experiences. This also applies to the person with ADHD who is physically and emotionally suffering from untreated ADHD restlessness, impulsiveness, low energy, shame, attention and organization problems, and a wide range of social pain.3 It is very difficult to say no to drugs when you have difficulties controlling your impulses, concentrating, and are tormented by a restless brain or body.

The sooner we treat children, adolescents, and adults with ADHD the more likely we are to help them to minimize or eliminate self-medicating. Many well meaning parents, therapists and medical doctors are fearful that treating ADHD with medication will lead to addiction. Not all people with ADHD need to take medication. For those who do, however, prescribed medication that is closely monitored can actually prevent and minimize the need to self-medicate. When medication helps people to concentrate, control their impulses, and regulate their energy level, they are less likely to self-medicate.

Untreated ADHD and Addiction Relapse

Untreated ADHD contributes to addictive relapse, and at best can be a huge factor in recovering people feeling miserable, depressed, unfulfilled, and suicidal. Many individuals in recovery have spent countless hours in therapy working through childhood issues, getting to know their inner child, and analyzing why they abuse substances and engage in addictive behaviors. Much of this soul searching, insight, and release of feelings is absolutely necessary to maintain recovery. But what if after years of group and individual therapy, and continued involvement in addiction programs your client still impulsively quit jobs and relationships, can't follow through with their goals, and has a fast chaotic, or slow energy level. What if, along with addiction your client also has ADHD?

Treating Both ADHD and Addictions

It is not enough to treat addictions and not treat ADHD, nor is it enough to treat ADHD and not treat co-occurring addiction. Both need to be diagnosed, and treated for the individual to have a chance at ongoing recovery. Now is the time to share information so that addiction specialists, and those treating ADHD can work together. It is critical that chemical dependency practitioners understand that ADHD is based in one's biology and responds well to a comprehensive treatment program that sometimes includes medications. It is also important for practitioners to support the recovering persons involvement in Twelve Step programs and help them to work with their fear about taking medication.

A Comprehensive Treatment Program Consists of:

  • A professional evaluation for ADHD and co-occurring addiction.
  • Continued involvement in addiction recovery groups or Twelve Step programs.
  • Education on how ADHD impacts each individual's life, and the lives of those who love them.
  • Building social, organization, communication, and work or school skills.
  • ADHD coaching and support groups.
  • Closely monitored medication when medication is indicated.
  • Supporting individuals decisions to take medication or not ( in time they may realize on their own that medication is an essential part of their recovery).

Stages of Recovery

It is important to treat people with ADHD and addiction according to their stage of recovery. Recovery is a process that can be divided into four stages, pre-recovery, early recovery, middle recovery, and long term recovery.

PRE-RECOVERY: Is the period before a person enters treatment for their addictions. It can be difficult to sort out ADHD symptoms from addictive behavior and intoxication. The focus at this point is to get the person into treatment for their chemical and/or behavioral addiction. This is NOT the time to treat ADHD with psycho stimulant medication.

EARLY RECOVERY: During this period it is also difficult, but not impossible to sort out ADHD from the symptoms of abstinence which include, distractibility, restlessness, mood swings, confusions, and impulsivity. Much of what looks like ADHD can disappear with time in recovery. The key is in the life long history of ADHD symptoms dating back to childhood. In most cases early recovery is NOT the time to use psycho stimulant medication, unless the individual's ADHD is impacting his or her ability to attain sobriety.

MIDDLE RECOVERY: By now addicts, and alcoholics, are settling into recovery. This is usually the time when they seek therapy for problems that did not disappear with recovery. It is much easier to diagnose ADHD at this stage; and medication can be very effective when indicated.

LONG TERM RECOVERY: This is an excellent time to treat ADHD with medications when warranted. By now most people in recovery have lives that have expanded beyond intense focus on staying clean and sober. Their recovery is an important part of their life, and they also have the flexibility to deal with other problems such as ADHD.

Stimulant Medication and Addiction

Psychostimulant medication when properly prescribed and monitored is effective for approximately 75-80% of people with ADHD. These medications include Ritalin, Dexedrine, Adderall, and Desoxyn. It is important to note that when these medications are used to treat ADHD the dosage is much less that what addicts use to get high. When people are properly medicated they should not feel high or "speedy, instead they will report increases in their abilities to concentrate, control their impulses, and moderate their activity level. The route of delivery is also quite different. Medication to treat ADHD is taken orally, where street amphetamines are frequently injected and smoked.

Non stimulant medications such as Wellbutrin, Prozac, Nortriptyline, Effexor and Zoloft can also be effective in relieving ADHD symptoms for some people. These medications are frequently used in combination with a small dose of a psychostimulant. Recovering alcoholics and addicts are not flocking to doctors to get psychostimulant medication to treat their ADHD. The problem is that many are hesitant for good reasons to use medication, especially psycho stimulants. It has been my experience that once a recovering person becomes willing to try medication the chance of abuse is very rare. Again the key is a comprehensive treatment program that involves close monitoring of medication, behavioral interventions, ADHD coaching and support groups, and continued participation in addiction recovery programs.

There is Hope

For the last few years I have witnessed the transformation of lives that were once ravaged by untreated ADHD and addiction. I have worked with people who had relapsed in and out of treatment programs for ten to twenty years attain ongoing and fulfilling sobriety once their ADHD was treated. I have Witnessed people with ADHD achieve recovery once their addictions were treated.

"Each day I understand more about how pervasive ADHD is in my life. My clients, friends, family and colleagues are my teachers. I wouldn't wish ADHD and addictions on anyone, but if these are the genetic cards that you have been dealt, your life can still be fascinating and fulfilling."3


Wendy Richardson, MA, LMFCC, author of The Link Between ADD & Addiction, Getting The Help You Deserve, Pi-on Press (1997) is a certified addiction specialist who began working in addiction treatment in 1974. Ms. Richardson is nationally recognized as an expert on ADHD and co-occurring addictions, eating disorders, and criminal behavior. She trains therapists, educators, addiction specialists, attorneys, judges, and correctional personnel in America, Canada and abroad. She has been in private practice in Soquel, CA, since 1986.


1Bum, Cull, Braver man, and Comings, 'Reward Deficiency Syndrome,' American Scientist, March-April (1996), p. 143
2Maureen Martin Dale, "A Double-Edged Sword," Student Assistant Journal (November-December 1995): 1
3Wendy Richardson, MA, LMFCC, The Link Between ADD & Addiction: Getting The Help You Deserve (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Pi-on Press, 1997)



APA Reference
Staff, H. (2009, January 2). The Link Between ADHD and Addiction, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 25 from

Last Updated: May 6, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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