Adolescents with Bipolar Disorder at High Risk for Addiction

Distraught teen girl hiding faceWe’ve learned a lot about addiction over the past century. Through research and observation, addiction has gone from an enigma to a decidedly complex brain disease, for which there are many potential causes. However, there’s still much left to learn, especially when it comes to understanding susceptibility to addiction.

Addiction is an indiscriminate disease that can develop in men and women of all ages and from all walks of life, encompassing virtually the entire demographic spectrum. According to statistics, only 11 percent of those suffering from addiction are receiving treatment, and of those who are receiving treatment, between 40 and 60 percent will relapse.1, 2 With recovery rates so disappointingly low, the most effective way to curb addiction rates is to prevent addiction from developing in the first place. In other words, we need to know what could put someone at risk for developing a substance abuse problem so that the appropriate preventative steps can be taken.

“Depression, bipolar disorder, binge eating disorder– the list of my issues and problems is long and was often challenging. The good part is that it hasn’t stopped me from living, working, running and managing my life. I’m here today, that’s what counts.” — Tameara G., HeroesInRecovery.com

When it comes to demographic groups at risk for addiction, there has been a major focus on adolescents and teens. Today, it’s increasingly common for individuals to begin experimenting with alcohol and drugs during adolescence, which increases the risk of developing substance use disorders. While there are a number of reasons why young people experiment with recreational substance use — such as being exposed to substance abuse at home or being in peer groups consisting of other substance users — a recent study offers evidence that adolescents with bipolar disorder are at high risk of early-onset addiction.3

What is Bipolar Disorder?

Previously known as manic-depressive disorder, bipolar disorder is a psychological disorder characterized by unusual, unpredictable or unprovoked shifts in mood as well as energy and activity levels, making it difficult to fulfill one’s daily obligations.3 When a person has bipolar disorder, he or she will alternate between periods of depression and periods of mania, which is a state of inexplicably high energy, elation, impulsivity, insomnia and excessive risk-taking behavior. Typically, bipolar disorder first manifests during late teens or early adulthood, but it’s possible for symptoms to emerge even earlier.

It’s estimated that 3.9 percent of American adults meet the diagnostic criteria for bipolar disorder at some point in their lifetimes with 2.6 percent meeting the diagnostic criteria in a given year.4 Among adolescents, bipolar disorder tends to develop at lower yet comparable rates. About 2.5 percent of adolescents have experienced symptoms of bipolar in their lifetimes, and 2.2 percent experience symptoms in a given year.4 However, when considering only adolescents in their late teens, there was an increase to 3.1 percent having experienced symptoms of bipolar disorder in their lifetimes.

The Bipolar – Addiction Connection

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital recently investigated whether bipolar disorder in adolescents might be a predictor of later alcohol or drug problems. The study began with an assessment of two groups: 105 adolescents with bipolar disorder and 98 adolescents who didn’t have bipolar disorder and who served as the control group. Initially, about 34 percent of the adolescents with bipolar disorder had problems with substance abuse while just 4 percent of the control group had alcohol or drug problems.5 From the very start, the two groups showed a major discrepancy in the frequency of substance abuse.

Five years later, the researchers followed up with 68 of the original bipolar adolescents and 81 members of the control group. Almost half (49 percent) of the bipolar group had developed alcohol or drug problems while just 26 percent of the control group had developed substance abuse problems, a difference of nearly half. Additionally, symptoms of conduct disorder — a blanket term used to described aggressive, destructive, defiant or deceitful behaviors exhibited by youths—were usually present in bipolar individuals with alcohol or drug problems at the time the follow-up interviews were conducted.6

Dr. Timothy Wilens, lead author of the study: “[T]hose originally diagnosed with bipolar disorder who continued to have symptoms five years later were at an even higher risk for… substance use disorder than those whose symptoms were reduced either because of remission from bipolar disorder or from treatment.”5

The implications of this study are enormous. In teens and young adults suffering from both bipolar disorder and a substance use disorder, it’s likely that symptoms of bipolar disorder developed before alcohol and drug problems. Although substance abuse is widely considered a symptom of bipolar disorder, the present study confirms this is true for bipolar adolescents, too. The study shows that when the symptoms of bipolar disorder are treated effectively and managed, the likelihood of developing a substance use disorder is greatly reduced.

If you or your loved one is struggling with addiction and may have bipolar disorder, please call our 24-hour, toll-free helpline today. We want to help you get started on your journey to health.


1New Data Show Millions of Americans with Alcohol and Drug Addiction Could Benefit from Health Care Reform.” DrugFree.org. 28 September 2010. Web. Accessed 16 July 2017.

2Bipolar Disorder.” April 2016. Web. Accessed 16 July 2017.

3Bipolar Disorder and Addiction.” DualDiagnosis.org. 2017. Web. Accessed 16 July 2017.

4Bipolar Disorder.” NIMH. April 2016 Web. Accessed 16 July 2017.

5Rate of Bipolar Symptoms Among Teens Approaches That of Adults.” NIMH. 18 June 2012. Web. Accessed 16 July 2017.

6Conduct Disorder.” American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. August 2013. Web. Accessed 16 July 2017.

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