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Substance Abuse Rates Higher for Teens with ADHD


A wide-ranging study has found higher rates of substance abuse and cigarette-smoking among teens diagnosed with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, was conducted by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, along with six health centers across the U.S., and is the first to examine substance abuse and treatment among adolescents with ADHD on a large scale.

“This study underscores the significance of the substance abuse risk for both boys and girls with childhood ADHD,” Brooke Molina, Ph.D., lead author of the report, told PsychCentral in an interview. “These findings also are the strongest test to date of the association between medication for ADHD and teenage substance abuse.”

The researchers involved in the study observed over 600 children during an eight-year period from childhood through adolescence to see if ADHD increased risk for substance abuse or dependence, as well as checking the substance abuse patterns, effects of medications, and possible relationship between medication and substance abuse among young people with ADHD.

The findings showed that, among adolescents whose mean age was 15, thirty-five percent of those with ADHD admitted to using one or more substances, compared to twenty percent of the non-ADHD participants. Ten percent had rates of substance abuse high enough to meet the criteria for a substance abuse or dependence disorder, compared to three percent of the non-ADHD teens.

By the time the adolescents were an average age of 17, thirteen percent of those in the ADHD group met the criteria for marijuana abuse or dependence, compared to seven percent of the non-ADHD group.

Daily cigarette smoking was seventeen percent among the ADHD group, while for the non-ADHD participants the rate was only eight percent.

Alcohol rates were the same for both groups, as were the substance abuse rates among those in the ADHD group who were on medication and those who were no longer taking medication, suggesting previously held assumptions that medication reduces the chances of substance abuse.

According to Molina, substance abuse prevention and treatment methods for children with ADHD must be tailored to the needs of those with the disorder.

“We are working hard to understand the reasons why children with ADHD have increased risk of drug abuse. Our hypotheses, partly supported by our research and that of others, is that impulsive decision making, poor school performance, and difficulty making healthy friendships all contribute.

“Some of this is biologically driven because we know that ADHD runs in families. However, similar to managing high blood pressure or obesity, there are non-medical things we can do to decrease the risk of a bad outcome. As researchers and practitioners, we need to do a better job of helping parents and schools address these risk factors that are so common for children with ADHD.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 5.4 million children aged 4 to 17 were diagnosed with ADHD in the United States as of 2007.  That represents 9.5 percent of all children in that age bracket.  The percentage of children with ADHD increased 22 percent between 2003 and 2007 as reported by parents.

ADHD diagnosis is found at higher rates among teenagers than young children, and boys are more than twice as likely as girls to be diagnosed with the disorder (13.2 percent vs. 5.6 percent).



  1. Nauert, Rick.  “Substance Abuse Problems Among Kids with ADHD.”  PsychCentral.  12 February 2013.  Web.  12 February 2013.
  2. Hodgekiss, Anna.  “Teenagers with ADHD are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, even if they’re given medication.”  Mail Online.  The Daily Mail.  12 February 2013.  Web.  12 February 2013.
  3. Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  24 January 2013.  Web.  13 February 2013.


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Filed under: Conditions and Disorders, Substance Abuse · Tags: ADHD, ADHD and substance abuse, adolescents, Substance abuse in teens, Teen drug use

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