Adult ADHD and Substance Use: Exploring the Link Between Drugs, Alcohol, and Risky Behavior

Phelps lost a lucrative sponsorship after being photographed smoking pot. He was diagnosed with ADHD as a child.
After a British tabloid photo of Michael Phelps apparently smoking marijuana at a college party surfaced early this month, the Olympic swimmer apologized to his fans and to the public, citing his youth, his “regrettable” behavior, and his “bad judgment.” What he didn't mention—and what may or may not have influenced his behavior—was attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a condition with which he was diagnosed at age nine.

About 60% of children with ADHD have symptoms that persist into adulthood. Phelps no longer takes medication for ADHD, and his mother has said he is now able to focus his attention using physical training (including swimming) and behavioral modification he learned as a child.

While the 14-time Olympic gold medalist is generally seen as an all-American role model, this most recent photo was not the first blemish on his record: In November 2004, Phelps—just 19 at the time—ran a stop sign and was arrested for driving under the influence.

In recent days, several blogs have raised Phelps ADHD in connection with the party photo, suggesting that he may have been "self-medicating"; that lots of people with ADHD smoke pot; or, at the very least, that they tend to act before thinking. Other commentators have suggested that Phelps is simply a normal 23-year-old cutting loose after years of rigorous training and self-discipline.

No one can say if ADHD played a role in Phelps behavior. However, the episode does serve as a reminder that there are unanswered questions about ADHD's impact on impulsive decision making and substance use—and the importance of seeking diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible, before problems develop.

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Lead writer: Ray Hainer
Last Updated: February 05, 2009

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