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Posted 04/28/2021

Join the Fight Against Teen Substance Use

Most have heard “Teenagers will be teenagers.” or “Everyone is doing it!” or made similar statements at some point. While this sentiment may be acceptable or even humorous when it comes to loud music or unique hair and clothes choices, the mindset can have serious consequences for situations involving alcohol, drugs or tobacco use.

What makes teens so different from adults? Experts agree that brains do not fully develop until about age 25. For most people, this is the age when decision-making skills and impulse control begin to stabilize, and adults begin to understand the consequences of actions and make better choices.

During these vulnerable early years, even the most prudent, disciplined teenagers and young adults can believe they are invincible and inadvertently minimize dangerous behaviors such as reckless driving, unhealthy drinking and unprotected sex.

Many don’t realize risky or immature behaviors stem from biological, developmental and chemical imbalances leaving teenagers more vulnerable to developing substance use disorders and developing them more quickly than adults.

Roughly 90 percent of Americans diagnosed with substance use disorders began using substances before the age of 18. Unfortunately, hundreds of teenagers between the ages of 12 and 14 initiate drugs and alcohol into their lives each day.

Vaping, alcohol and marijuana are the most popular substances for adolescents. By the 12th grade, roughly 65 percent of students have tried alcohol; and about 50 percent of students 9th through 12th grade have tried marijuana.

“Adolescents may perceive electronic vaporizers as a healthier mechanism compared to traditional cigarettes or combustible materials. This is reflected by the overall increase in e-cigarette use that has been seen in high school and middle school students in the last few years,” said Trevor Anderson, M.D., board-certified pediatrician and addiction medicine fellow at NCWR’s Addiction Recovery Clinic.

Early exposure to addictive substances can result in devastating long-term chronic mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety and can lead to progressively more severe substance use.

Why do teenagers try drugs and start drinking in the first place? It may be peer pressure, a way of coping with stress, a desire to try new experiences, or trying to be “cool” as portrayed in movies or social media.

"Stopping substances is not enough. It is important for adolescents to replace potentially harmful behaviors with healthy activities and coping strategies," said Kelly Dunn, M.D., executive director of treatment at NCWR.

One simple way to reduce the risk of teen addiction is to eliminate easy access to addictive substances. According to a study by Johns Hopkins, it is estimated that 60 percent of American adults keep leftover prescription opioids where children and teenagers can get to them.

“This availability makes its very tempting for adolescents and their friends to experiment with,” said Anderson. “It can take as little as five days of consistent opioid use to develop a lifelong substance use problem.”

Some people are more vulnerable to addictive behaviors. Youth who have been physically or sexually abused are at a higher risk of substance use disorders. Other risk factors include prenatal exposure to alcohol or other drugs, lack of parental supervision, having friends who use drugs, and genetic vulnerabilities. However, risk factors are not required to develop a substance use problem.

Another alarming long-term trend is that teenagers have been increasingly minimizing the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol over the last decade. During this same period, the source and contents of drugs has become more unpredictable and toxic. In 2015, one study revealed roughly 32 percent of high school seniors believed that smoking marijuana regularly was not harmful which is a drop from 58 percent in 2005.

There is hope. Fortunately, there are a variety of genetic and environmental influences that promote strong psychosocial development and resilience, and work to counteract the negative effects of early exposure to addictive substances.

Support from parents and school-based initiatives are among the top two most effective approaches for reducing risks of alcohol and substance use.

“Families play an integral role in the recovery of an adolescent,” said Dunn. “A supportive, healthy role model can help moderate the effects of substance use disorders.”

It’s important for parents, schools and communities to continue educating teenagers and young adults to the short-term and long-term consequences of addiction before it’s too late.

Parents can help in these ways:

  • Set a good example for healthy approaches to substances.
  • Restrict access to addictive substances and properly dispose of leftover prescription narcotics through Drug Take Back Days or other programs.
  • Communicate clear, consistent no-use messages.
  • Consistently enforce rules.
  • Remind adolescents that not “everyone” is drinking and doing drugs.
  • Talk with your pediatrician if you notice a persistent change in your child’s academic performance or mood.
  • Get involved in your children’s schools to promote awareness and prevention of substance use disorders.

For adolescents and young adults, prevention is key. For those who may need help with diagnosis or treatment of addictive behaviors, there are proven therapies that work such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, motivational enhancement therapy, and community reinforcement and family training.

NCWR addiction medicine specialists provide customized care plans for adults and adolescents suffering from addictive behavior disorders. Treatment methods include medications for substance use disorders, counsel­ing and behavioral therapy and support groups. Appointments are available in person or virtually at the Tulsa clinic, as well as virtually in rural health facilities through­out Oklahoma. For more information, call 918-561-1890.

Deanne Vick | April 2021
deanne.vick@okstate.edu