Behavioral Disorders And Addiction: Dual Diagnosis

Medically Reviewed by Johnelle Smith, M.D. on April 19, 2021

People with behavioral disorders, like ADHD, can be at a higher risk for developing substance abuse and addiction. Treatment for this generally involves individual therapy, group therapy, and medication.

Dual Diagnosis Behavioral Disorders And Addiction

Behavioral disorders are marked by chronic patterns of irregular or disruptive behaviors. Although they are often diagnosed in children, these disorders can last into adulthood.

Teenagers and young adults with behavioral disorders, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), can be at higher risk for developing drug or alcohol problems.

The most effective way to treat co-occurring substance abuse and behavioral disorders—also known as dual diagnosis—is with integrated behavioral health treatment.

What Are Behavioral Disorders?

Behavioral disorders are disorders that involve a pattern of disruptive behaviors and certain symptoms for at least six months. These are generally diagnosed in children and adolescents.

Behavioral disorders include:

  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • attention deficit disorder (ADD)
  • conduct disorder
  • oppositional defiant disorder

There are also mental health disorders and symptoms of mental illness, such as self-injury, that are characterized by specific patterns of behavior that can negatively affect a person’s life.

Addiction And ADHD

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a behavioral disorder typically diagnosed in children, although it can also last into adulthood and be diagnosed in adults.

Symptoms of ADHD can include:

  • difficulty focusing
  • short attention span
  • being very hyper
  • excessive talking at inappropriate times
  • forgetfulness

High rates of substance abuse among people with ADHD are linked to high levels of impulsivity and using substances to self-medicate without a prescription.

Addiction And ADD

Attention deficit disorder (ADD) is a type of ADHD. Now considered an outdated term, attention deficit disorder unofficially refers to an ‘inattentive’ subtype of ADHD.

People who have this type of ADHD may have difficulties with attention span, focusing, and following instructions—but may not be hyperactive.

Like people with hyperactivity, people with ADHD may use substances to self-medicate symptoms of their disorder.

Addiction And Conduct Disorder

Conduct disorder is typically diagnosed in children who show a pattern of violating the rights of others, or violating rules or regulations—often with aggression and lack of empathy or remorse.


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People with this disorder are at a greater risk of developing substance abuse issues later in life compared to those without.

Illicit drug use is particularly common, likely in tandem with the tendency to engage in risky and illegal activities.

Addiction And Oppositional Defiant Disorder

This behavioral disorder, characterized by a chronic pattern of excessively defiant behavior in children, can be a risk factor for abusing drugs or alcohol as a teenager or adult.

People with this disorder may be more likely to act out and engage in risky behaviors—both of which may include or lead to patterns of substance misuse.

Addiction And Self-Harm

Self-harm, also known as self-injury or self-mutilation, isn’t a formal diagnosis. It refers to a behavior in which someone causes an injury to themselves.

Substance abuse can itself be considered a form of self-harm. But self-harm can also refer to behaviors such as cutting, scratching oneself, burning, bruising, or inviting others to hurt them.

Struggling with self-harm can increase a person’s risk for developing substance abuse issues. Both share risk factors such as low self-worth, depression, and a lack of supportive coping skills.

Who’s Most At Risk?

Having a behavioral disorder alone can be a risk for developing a substance use disorder at some point in your life. Certain risk factors, however, may further compound this risk.

You can be at increased risk for addiction if you:

  • have co-occurring depression or anxiety
  • have a family history of substance abuse
  • have low self-esteem
  • have untreated ADHD/ADD
  • experience high levels of stress

Addiction And Behavioral Disorder Rates In The U.S.

A fair amount of research has been conducted to determine whether there’s a link between having a behavioral disorder and developing a substance use disorder.

What research shows:

  • An estimated five percent—or 11 million—U.S. adults are estimated to have ADHD, and about 4.5 million children have some form of diagnosed behavior problem.
  • People with ADHD tend to begin drinking or using drugs earlier than people without this condition.
  • People with co-occurring behavioral and substance use disorders have higher rates of attempted suicide and are more likely to develop severe substance issues.
  • About 15 percent of adults with ADHD were found to have co-occurring substance abuse issues compared to 5.6 percent of adults without ADHD, according to national survey data.

Diagnosing Behavioral Disorders

Diagnosing a behavioral disorder in someone who seeks treatment for a substance use disorder can be challenging, largely because many of their symptoms overlap.

To make a diagnosis, clinicians may consider:

  • past history of ADHD/ADD symptoms
  • duration and severity of substance use
  • input from close friends or family
  • duration of sobriety
  • medical history

Treatment For Co-Occurring Addiction And Behavioral Disorders

Substance abuse and addiction can be debilitating and potentially life-threatening without treatment.

People with co-occurring disorders can benefit the most from a dual diagnosis treatment program. This is offered by some rehab centers and individual treatment providers.

Treatment for co-occurring behavioral and substance use disorders may involve medical detox, individual therapy, group counseling, and medication.

If you’re looking for treatment for yourself or a loved one with co-occurring disorders, we may be able to help.

By calling us, we can:

  • verify your insurance
  • explain your treatment options
  • find a dual diagnosis treatment program near you

Call our helpline today to find a dual diagnosis treatment program that’s right for you.

This page does not provide medical advice. See more

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Medically Reviewed by
Johnelle Smith, M.D. on April 19, 2021


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