ADHD News & Research

Taking an ADHD Stimulant Does NOT Put Most Children at Higher Risk for Substance Abuse

New evidence further supports the theory that long-term use of stimulant medication – when used properly for the treatment of ADHD symptoms – does not increase the risk that a child will abuse other controlled substances.

June 22, 2016

Stimulant medications like Adderall, Ritalin, and Vyvanse are controlled substances, and for good reason: used improperly, these stimulant medications can lead to addiction and dangerous side effects – including, in some extreme cases, death. Some worried parents hesitate to give their children ADHD medication, out of fear that its “addictive” nature will lead to drug abuse in high school or young adulthood. But a new study should put those fears to rest; it finds that teens with ADHD who took stimulant medication since childhood were no more likely to abuse drugs than were their neurotypical peers.

The study, carried out by a team at the University of Michigan and published in the June 2016 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, is one of the largest ever conducted on stimulant medications and substance abuse. In it, 40,000 high school seniors across the United States answered questions about their ADHD symptoms, use of stimulant medications, and history of substance abuse, over the time period spanning 2005 to 2014.

As many as one out of every eight of these high school seniors reported using medication – either stimulants or non-stimulants – to treat symptoms of ADHD, with boys more likely to be prescribed stimulants than girls. Despite this relatively high rate of use, the results indicated that patients who began using stimulant treatment early in life and steadily maintained use through their teen years were at no elevated risk of substance abuse.

The study did find, however, that patients who started ADHD medications in their teen years and only stayed on them for a short period of time were at an increased risk for substance abuse. Researchers can’t yet attribute this link to the stimulants themselves or to pre-existing risk factors, like the emotional strife or related mood disorders that often go along with untreated ADHD. The researchers suggest careful monitoring of teens who start stimulant medication late so that doctors and parents can watch for emotional changes and other warning signs of substance abuse.

Overall, the results – bolstered by the large sample size – support the theory that earlier treatment is better in most cases, and that stimulant medications alone do not increase the risk that a child will turn to illicit substances during the tumultuous teen years.