Dangers of Adolescent Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is one of our nation’s largest public health problems. It costs our society billions of dollars every year and claims unnecessary lives. Most troubling is that addiction is a young person’s disease. Specifically, the younger a developing brain is exposed to mind-altering substances, the quicker addiction progresses.

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Substance abuse is one of our nation’s largest public health problems. It costs our society billions of dollars every year and claims unnecessary lives. Most troubling is that addiction is a young person’s disease. Specifically, the younger a developing brain is exposed to mind-altering substances, the quicker addiction progresses.

As parents, nothing is more frightening than the prospect of losing our children to addiction. The human brain is not fully developed until after 25 years old, making decisions that undeveloped brains make even more vital and consequential. Adolescent brains do not have the fully developed wiring to their frontal lobes as those who are over 25 years old. Subsequently, many impulse related events occur in this age group, like drug use and addiction, motor vehicle accidents, homicides and suicides. When an adolescent abuses substances, their brain gets emotionally arrested at the stage of development when they started using. This means that once addiction is activated, the person gets stranded with immature coping skills that persist throughout their lives until they get sober and learn how to develop new ones. 

As an addiction specialist, I have witnessed an alarming trend in prescription drug abuse across all age groups. What is especially disconcerting in adolescents is that the first drug they are most likely to first experiment with can include prescriptive pain killers or sedatives. The days of alcohol and marijuana have been replaced by Xanax, a sedative, and Hydrocodone, a painkiller. Falsely believing that prescription drugs carry less harm, many people are under the false assumption that they cannot be too harmful to use. However, they are proving to be even more dangerous as emergency room visits for overdoses are rising. 

The Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey has measured drug, alcohol and cigarette use, and related attitudes among adolescent students nationwide since 1975 to track trends.

Positive Findings

Cigarette smoking is at its lowest point in the history of the survey on all measures among students in grades 8, 10 and 12. These findings are particularly noteworthy since tobacco addiction is one of the leading preventable contributors to many of our nation's health problems.

Between 2004 and 2009, a drop in past-year use of methamphetamine was reported for all grades. Among 10th and 12th graders, 5-year declines were reported for past-year use of amphetamines and cocaine. Among 12th graders, past-year use of cocaine also decreased.

From 2004 to 2009, decreases were observed in lifetime, past-year, past-month, and binge use of alcohol across the three grades surveyed.

In 2009, 12th graders reported declines in use across several survey measures of hallucinogens: past-year use of hallucinogens and LSD fell significantly, from 5.9 to 4.7 percent and from 2.7 to 1.9 percent, respectively; and past-year use of hallucinogens other than LSD decreased from 5.0 to 4.2 percent.

Attitudes toward substance abuse among 12th graders were perceived harmfulness of LSD, amphetamines, sedatives/barbiturates, heroin and cocaine increased. Across the three grades, perceived availability of several drugs decreased.

Areas of Concern

Marijuana use across the three grades has shown a consistent decline since the mid-1990s until now. From 2008 to 2009, lifetime, past-month and daily use of smokeless tobacco increased significantly among 10th graders.

When asked how prescription narcotics were obtained for nonmedical use, about 52 % of 12th graders said they were given the drugs or bought them from a friend or relative. Additionally, 30 percent reported receiving a prescription for them, and a negligible number of 12th graders reported purchasing the narcotics over the Internet.

Blog written by George Joseph, LCDC
George Joseph is a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor who began his career in 1983. George is the CEO of The Right Step,...