Substance Abuse Among Bipolar Youth

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Approximately 1 in 3 teens with bipolar disorder develop substance abuse problems, according a new study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The average time frame noted between diagnosis and the first signs of substance abuse is four years. Bipolar teens who experiment with alcohol and cannabis have a much higher risk of developing addictions than non-bipolar teens, who experiment roughly just as much.


At the University of Toronto, a group of researchers examined 167 bipolar youth between the ages of 12 and 17. The goal of the study was to document possible predictors of future substance abuse. As well as early experimentation with drugs, they noted five other factors:

  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • A family history of substance abuse
  • Lack of family cohesiveness
  • The absence of antidepressants in the treatment regimen

Just over half of the teens who meet three or more of these risk factors went on to develop substance addictions, compared to 14 percent of those who met two factors or less.

Addiction and mental health conditions go hand-in-hand. The emotional highs and lows bipolar causes can make teens want to self-medicate, which is never good. Our longitudinal study makes one thing clear: For bipolar youth, drug use is akin to playing with fire. This includes drugs that may not seem like much of a threat to the average person (alcohol and marijuana).

Further Studies on Dual Diagnosis

Research into the link between bipolar and addiction is ongoing, with new developments happening every year. Not long ago, the National Institute of Mental Health launched the Course and Outcome of Bipolar Youth, the largest longitudinal study of its kind. Three different testing sites (Brown University, UCLA, and the University of Pittsburgh)  were used to analyze bipolar youth and to set them up for continued longer-term behavioral monitoring. Those teens will be studied well into their twenties and thirties. Undoubtedly, this will lead to breakthroughs in the mental health field.


Results reveal a two-to-three year window in which preventive strategies can be used effectively to halt incoming substance abuse problems in this population. For information on how to do this, explore our blogs. For addiction intervention services, including detox and long-term treatment, give us a call at: 949-637-5499