ADHD and Addiction

ADHD increases the risk of addiction due to impulsivity and self-medication tendencies, often leading to substance misuse.
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What Is ADHD?

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What is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)?

It is a pattern of behaviours which usually appear in childhood. Parents and teachers notice that a child is:

  • unusually over-active.
  • distracted, cannot stick to anything for any length of time.
  • impulsive, does things on the spur of the moment or without thinking.
  • unable to concentrate for any length of time.

Many of us might have one of these problems, but we do not have all of them. To have a diagnosis of ADHD1, these problems must be bad enough to interfere with:

  • How you get on with other people – or
  • How you get on at work or school.

What happens as time goes on?

It tends to get better as you get older, but can continue into adult life2. The over-activity usually gets less, but the impulsivity, poor concentration and risk-taking can get worse. These can make it hard to work, learn and get on with other people. It’s not surprising that adults with ADHD are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, feelings of low self-esteem and drug misuse and can feel overwhelmed and struggle in less structured environments.

 

How common is ADHD?

Around 3-6 in every 100 school-aged children have ADHD5. For about 1 in 7 children with ADHD, their ADHD will continue into adulthood. About half will have some problems as adults,  although not full ADHD6. In children, boys are more commonly diagnosed than girls, where as in adults, there are more equal numbers of men and women seen in clinics.

How is ADHD/ADD diagnosed?

If you have these difficulties as a child or teenager, you would usually see either a Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) or a Paediatric Service.

Specialist staff would see you for an assessment interview of 1-2 hours. They would need to talk to your family and teachers to understand your early childhood and any current problems.

If you have become aware of these problems as an adult, you would see a professional with expertise in ADHD from either a Community Mental Health team or a Neurodevelopmental Service.  This is often a psychiatrist but may also be a specialist nurse or psychologist. The assessment will take 1-2 hours and will focus on the problems described above, and how troublesome they are.

The classification used in the UK is the ICD 10 system3. In the US, the DSM system4 allows for an “inattentive” type, without the over-activity. This is sometimes called Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

What can we do to help treat adults with ADHD/ADD?

Your psychiatrist or mental health professional can go over the advantages and disadvantages of medication and psychological interventions. They can be used on their own or together.

 

Psychotherapy

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness techniques and psychoeducational groups11,12,13 can help you to:

  • Find ways to make sure that you do important tasks.
  • Find ways to organise your life better.
  • Get self-critical thoughts into perspective, and so feel better about yourself.
  • Reduce unhelpful feelings of anxiety.

These are mostly ‘stimulant’ medications, related to amphetamines. They include methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta, Equasym), dexamphetamine (Dexadrine) and lisdexamfetamine (Elvanse). They work quickly, but the effect wears off during the night. It sounds strange that they should be useful in people with ADHD, but there is good evidence that they are.  Slow-release preparations usually mean you can take tablets just once a day. These drugs can be misused so, in the UK, they are legally ‘controlled’ drugs. The dose will usually be more than that prescribed for children1,11,14. The side-effects include weight loss and occasionally, psychosis.

Atomoxetine (also known as Strattera) is a ‘non-stimulant’ medication. It can be useful in people who have side effects or where stimulant medication is less suitable. It takes several weeks to begin to have an effect. Side-effects can include stomach cramps and diarrhoea, and some people have reported ideas of self-harm.

How effective are these treatments?

Less research has been done into the medication treatments for adults with ADHD, than with children, so some medications are not yet licensed in adults, even though they are commonly used. Your psychiatrist can still prescribe them, but may need to make it clear that the prescription is ‘off license’.

Adjustments and support

You may cope better or be affected less by the symptoms of ADHD if your environment suits you. ADHD is considered a disability in the UK and therefore your school / college or place of work must make “reasonable adjustments” to support you.

Seeking help from others who understand the problems may be useful to both you and your partner or family. There are a number of self-help groups for adults with ADHD across the country and also some online forums.

Disclaimer

This resource provides information, not advice.  

The content in this resource is provided for general information only. It is not intended to, and does not, amount to advice which you should rely on. It is not in any way an alternative to specific advice. 

You must therefore obtain the relevant professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action based on the information in this resource.

If you have questions about any medical matter, you should consult your doctor or other professional healthcare provider without delay.  

If you think you are experiencing any medical condition, you should seek immediate medical attention from a doctor or other professional healthcare provider.  

Although we make reasonable efforts to compile accurate information in our resources and to update the information in our resources, we make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in this resource is accurate, complete or up to date. 

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Might I have ADHD/ADD?

If you’re wondering whether you might have ADHD or ADD, then here are a couple of online tests to see whether you have enough of the ADHD/ADD traits for it to be worth requesting trying to get a formal diagnosis.

NOTE: These self-tests are not intended to diagnose or to replace the care of a health care professional.  Only a doctor or mental health professional can diagnose ADHD based on clinical evaluation.

Online ADHD Self-Test for Adults

Use this online self-test if you'd like to find out whether it's worth trying to get formally tested for ADHD as an adult.

Talke Online Self-Test

Online ADD/In-Attentive ADHD Self-Test for Adults

Use this online self-test if you'd like to find out whether it's worth trying to get formally tested for ADD as an adult.

Talke Online Self-Test

Online ADHD Self-Test for Women

Use this test if you'd like to find out whether it's worth trying to get formally tested for ADHD/ADD if you're a woman.

Talke Online Self-Test

Failing at Normal: An ADHD Success Story
Jessica McCabe | TEDxBratislava

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Recovery Stories by People with ADHD/ADD

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