Boys treated with Ritalin, other stimulants significantly less likely to abuse drugs later

August 02, 1999

Boys with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who are treated with stimulants such as Ritalin are significantly less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol when they get older, according to a new study funded by two components of the National Institutes of Health -- the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The study, which will appear in the August 2, 1999, issue of Pediatrics, compared three groups of boys - those with ADHD who had been treated with stimulants, those with ADHD who had not been treated with stimulants, and those without ADHD -- and their susceptibility to substance use disorder.

ADHD, which is characterized by difficulties in paying attention, in keeping still, and in suppressing impulsive behaviors, is usually treated with stimulants, such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) or dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine, Adderall) because these drugs reduce the behavioral and attentional problems connected to their ADHD. As a result, children with ADHD perform better in school and on the job and relate better to family and friends. Research indicates that between three and five percent of all school-age children have ADHD, and that the disorder is about four times more prevalent among boys than girls.

"While some clinicians have expressed concern about giving stimulants to children with ADHD because they fear it might increase the risk that these children will abuse stimulants and other drugs when they get older, this study shows exactly the opposite," says NIDA Director Alan I. Leshner. "Treating the underlying disorder, even if with stimulants, significantly reduces the probability they will use drugs later on."

In the study, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard School of Public Health, and Harvard Medical School compared the incidence of substance use disorders in 56 boys with ADHD who had been treated with stimulants for an average of about 4 years, in 19 boys with ADHD who had not been treated with stimulants, and in 137 boys without ADHD. All boys were at least 15 years old when they were evaluated for substance use disorders involving alcohol, marijuana, hallucinogens, stimulants, or cocaine. In a substance use disorder, a person continues to use a mood- or behavior-altering substance despite the fact that this substance causes significant problems in the person's life.

Results of the study showed that 75 percent of the nonmedicated ADHD boys had at least one substance use disorder, compared to 25 percent of the medicated ADHD boys and 18 percent of the boys without ADHD. The researchers -- Dr. Joseph Biederman, Dr. Timothy Wilens, Eric Mick, Dr. Thomas Spencer, and Dr. Stephen Faraone -- calculated that treating ADHD with medication (stimulants were used in over 90% of cases) was associated with an 84 percent reduction in risk of developing a substance use disorder. These researchers will continue to study this entire group of boys in a followup study funded by NIDA.

In previous studies, these same researchers had found that nearly twice as many adults with ADHD also had developed at least one substance use disorder at some point in their lives, compared to adults without ADHD. The adults with ADHD had developed the disorder in childhood and, in most cases, the disorder was neither diagnosed nor treated until much later.
NIDA supports more than 85 percent of the world's research on the health aspects of drug abuse and addiction. The Institute also carries out a large variety of programs to ensure the rapid dissemination of research information and its implementation in policy and practice. Fact sheets on health effects of drugs of abuse and other topics can be ordered free of charge in English and Spanish, by calling NIDA Infofax at 1-888-NIH-NIDA (-644-6432) or 1-888-TYY-NIDA (-889-6432) for the deaf. These fact sheets and further information on NIDA research and other activities can be found on the NIDA home page at

NIH/National Institute on Drug Abuse

Related Mental Health Articles from Brightsurf:

Mental health strained by disaster
A new study found that suicide rates increase during all types of disasters -- including severe storms, floods, hurricanes and ice storms -- with the largest overall increase occurring two years after a disaster.

The mental health impact of pandemics for front line health care staff
New research shows the impact that pandemics have on the mental health of front-line health care staff.

World Mental Health Day -- CACTUS releases report of largest researcher mental health survey
On the occasion of 'World Mental Health Day' 2020, CACTUS, a global scientific communications company, has released a global survey on mental health, wellbeing and fulfilment in academia.

Mental illness, mental health care use among police officers
A survey study of Texas police officers examines how common mental illness and mental health care use are in a large urban department.

COVID-19 outbreak and mental health
The use of online platforms to guide effective consumption of information, facilitate social support and continue mental health care delivery during the COVID-19 pandemic is discussed in this Viewpoint.

COVID-19 may have consequences for mental health
The COVID-19 pandemic appears to be adversely affecting mental health among hospitalised patients, the healthcare professionals treating them and the general population.

Mental health outcomes among health care workers during COVID-19 pandemic in Italy
Symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and insomnia among health care workers in Italy during the COVID-19 pandemic are reported in this observational study.

Mental ill health 'substantial health concern' among police, finds international study
Mental health issues among police officers are a 'substantial health concern,' with around 1 in 4 potentially drinking at hazardous levels and around 1 in 7 meeting the criteria for post traumatic stress disorder and depression, finds a pooled data analysis of the available international evidence, published online in Occupational & Environmental Medicine.

Examining health insurance nondiscrimination policies with mental health among gender minority individuals
A large private health insurance database was used to examine the association between between health insurance nondiscrimination policies and mental health outcomes for gender minority individuals.

Mental health care for adolescents
Researchers examined changes over time in the kinds of mental health problems for which adolescents in the United States received care and where they got that care in this survey study with findings that should be interpreted within the context of several limitations including self-reported information.

Read More: Mental Health News and Mental Health Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to