ADHD News & Research

Psychiatric Disorders in Childhood May Point to Addiction Later In Life

Mental health struggles in childhood — including ADHD, depression, and ODD — are correlated with later substance abuse problems, a new meta-analysis finds.

July 13, 2017

A large new study suggests that children diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder — such as ADHD, depression, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), or conduct disorder — are more likely to struggle with substance abuse in adulthood.

Experts have long suspected that ADHD contributes to the development of substance abuse disorder, but little systematic research existed regarding this and other common childhood psychiatric disorders like depression or anxiety. Now, a new meta-analysis published in the July 2017 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP), draws a direct line from these pediatric conditions to substance abuse later in life.

The new meta-analysis comprises research from 37 smaller studies on substance abuse and mental health that included 700,000 subjects in the Netherlands — 22,029 of these people had ADHD, 434 had conduct disorder or ODD, 1,433 had anxiety disorder, and 2,451 had depression.

All these subjects — except the ones with anxiety — showed a significantly higher risk of developing substance abuse issues later in their lives than did the neurotypical children studied. The risk was highest for patients with ODD or conduct disorder — about three times as great; ADHD was a close second, at about two times the risk. ODD and ADHD frequently co-occur, researchers said, and are often thought to work together to lead to drug abuse in the teen or adult years.

Researchers said they were unsure why children with anxiety demonstrated a lower risk, and stated that further anxiety-specific research is warranted.

“Our findings show that not only ADHD increased the risk of addictions, but that other childhood psychiatric disorders also increased risk,” concluded author Annabeth P. Groenman, Ph.D., of the University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands. “This indicates the importance of early detection of mental health problems in a wider group.” She went on to emphasize the challenges presented by substance abuse, saying, “Addiction is a major cause of immense personal, familial, and societal burden — and prevention is therefore an important goal.”

Fellow author Jaap Oosterlaan, Ph.D., added, “The next step is to make parents, clinicians, and the government aware of these risks and work together in reducing the risks for addiction and its debilitating consequences.”