Drug & Alcohol Use in Adolescents

Nearly 70 percent of high school seniors have tried alcohol, 50 percent have taken an illegal drug, and more than 20 percent have used a prescription drug for a non-medical reason, studies show. Research has found the majority of people are most likely to misuse drugs and alcohol during this transformative time.

Why is this the trend?

  • Underdevelopment of the prefrontal cortex
    • The parts of the brain that process reward and pain first mature during childhood. However, the prefrontal cortex – responsible for controlling impulses, emotions, and decision-making – does not mature until people reach their mid-20s. Therefore, adolescents are motivated by the desire to feel pleasure and avoid pain, both of which are associated with drug and alcohol use.
  • Genetic factors
    • Certain genetic traits, for instance a low harm-avoidance personality trait, make individuals more susceptible to using drugs and alcohol.
    • Mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety also increase the likelihood an adolescent will turn to substances.
  • Social environment
    • Teens are more likely to try drugs and alcohol if their friends are also using.
  • Accessibility of drugs
    • Adolescents are at an increased risk of trying substances if they have easy access to them.
  • Family environment

Compared to adults, adolescents are much more likely to hide their substance use from loved ones. Adolescents are also less likely to show signs of a problem because they have a shorter history of use. However, there are still red flags.

What are the signs?

  • Loss of interest in school and hobbies
  • Sudden need for more money and unwillingness to explain spending habits
  • Withdrawal from family and friends, and an increased desire to be alone
  • Change in friends
  • Change in behavior or personality
  • Unresponsiveness to communication
  • Frequent rule-breaking, especially of curfew

While most adolescents who try drugs and alcohol do not have substance use disorders, the likelihood of developing a substance use disorder is greater for people who begin using in their early teens. According to a study, 15.2 percent of people who start drinking by age 14 develop substance use disorders, compared to 2.1 percent of those who wait until they are 21 or older.

What are the effects?

  • Difficulties with schoolwork
  • Relationship problems
  • Loss of interest in normal healthy activities
  • Impaired memory and thinking ability
  • Increased risk of contracting an infectious disease
  • Mental health problems—including substance use disorders
  • Increased possibility of partaking in unsafe sexual activities
  • Overdose
  • Death

The key in the battle against adolescent addiction is time: We need to involve adolescents in professional treatment programs as soon as possible. Adolescents are less likely to seek out help on their own, so it is crucial loved ones help them into treatment.

Gateway Foundation Cautions Parents: Depressed Teens Vulnerable to Substance Abuse

While an estimated 2 million adolescents—or about 8% of the population aged 12 to 17—had a major depressive episode (MDE) in the past year, nearly two thirds of teens who had a past year MDE did not receive treatment despite the effectiveness of therapy options.

If your child does experience problems with sleep, energy, concentration and self-worth, you may want to seek professional help before a MDE takes place. Another reason it is key to stay attuned to your child’s mental health: adolescents who had a past year MDE were three times as likely as those without past year MDE to have had a substance abuse disorder in the past year (19.9% vs. 6.1%).

In fact, SAMHSA’s 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) also found 19.2% of adolescents who had a MDE reported abusing prescription drugs in the past year compared with 6.6% of those without MDE. Females, older adolescents and those with co-occurring substance use problems are at higher risk for MDE.

Recent research estimates that as many as half of teens abusing drugs also have mental health problems that need treating. Among teens with substance abuse problems, the most common dual-diagnosed mental health problems include depression, anxiety and trauma-related issues. There is also a subset of individuals with more severe mental health problems, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

The stressors of addiction or mental health problems can often be compounded by the pressures of school and peers.  To help area teens get the help they need, Gateway Foundation Alcohol & Drug Treatment offers specialized treatment for adolescents struggling with substance abuse and mental health diagnoses.

Gateway Foundation’s Intensive Outpatient programs are offered in the morning and after school so treatment doesn’t interfere with school. Intensive Outpatient drug and alcohol treatment for teens is ideal if a strong support system exists, a stable living situation and the internal motivation to change.

In Gateway’s Intensive Outpatient programs, adolescents participate in group and family counseling sessions several times per week as well as one-on-one counseling sessions with their primary counselor. Treatment is usually four sessions per week that are three hours each, based on an individual’s needs. Most individuals remain in an Intensive Outpatient Treatment program for four to six weeks before transitioning into less intense weekly Aftercare sessions.

The care demonstrated by Gateway Foundation substance abuse experts and the time taken to learn about each individual’s unique situation is at the cornerstone of Gateway Foundation’s success. An interdisciplinary team collaborates to develop evidence-based treatment plans with recommendations for the most appropriate therapies based on an individual’s substance abuse and mental health history.

Gateway’s ultimate goal is to provide each and every person with the counseling, therapy, knowledge and tools needed to live a life free of drugs and alcohol, replacing destructive behaviors and self-medicating with healthier coping skills. For more information, contact Gateway Foundation online or call the 24-hour helpline at 877-505-HOPE (4673).

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