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Link found between substance use and ADHD

Levels of smoking, alcohol and illicit drug use are significantly higher in young people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) suggesting people in this group may be attempting to self-medicate to manage symptoms of ADHD. 

The research, led by Professor Gisli Gudjonsson at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London, was published online in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry this month. The researchers examined the relationship between cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption and illicit drug use in 10,987 young people aged 14-16 in Iceland in 2010. Out of the group, 5.4% were diagnosed with symptoms of ADHD.

After adjusting for anxiety, depression and anti-establishment attitudes, the relationship between cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, and illicit drug use and ADHD remained strong, suggesting an independent effect of ADHD symptoms on substance use. Additionally, 25% of those with symptoms of ADHD reporting using sedatives compared to 7% of those without symptoms of ADHD. 

Professor Gudjonsson says: ‘The use of sedatives was particularly striking. We also found that that number of different substances used increased as ADHD symptoms became more severe, suggesting young people may be attempting to self-medicate to cope with their symptoms.’

The authors suggest the association may arise from the vulnerable mental state of young people with ADHD, such as susceptibility to boredom, need for stimulation and/or distress, and believe the findings are applicable internationally. 

Prof Gudjonsson adds: ‘Whilst the study focuses on early drug use rather than substance dependence, the findings suggest there may be a specific pathway into substance use for young people with ADHD symptoms. We found that young people with ADHD are at risk of experimenting with different categories of substances which may increase the likelihood of them later developing subsequent substance use disorder. Early intervention in this vulnerable group of people is clearly very important.’

Epidemiological studies such as these are important for revealing the extent of the condition and any associated problems. The authors call for future research to follow young people over a long period of time and investigate the pathways of ADHD symptoms into substance use and dependence. 

Gudjonsson, G. et al. ‘An epidemiological study of ADHD symptoms among young persons and the relationship with cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption and illicit drug use’ (2011)  Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry - doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2011.02489.x

For more information, please contact Seil Collins, Press Officer at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, email: tel: 0207 848 537
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