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Understanding Teen Drug Use – Prevention and Early Intervention

There is no way around it, adolescence is hard. Growing up in the world we live in isn’t easy. Today’s youth are faced with many complex and difficult decisions, like whether or not to experiment with drugs. Researchers tell us the risk of drug abuse increases greatly during times of transition, and what is a more transitional time than adolescence?

Sadly, many teens don’t realize that the single decision to try drugs can have long-term detrimental effects. Teens who experiment with drugs not only put their health at risk, but also their safety.

What makes a teen susceptible to drugs? Well, there isn’t a simple answer to that question. In truth, usually there are many reasons why teens turn to drugs.

Below are some common reasons teens give for choosing to use:

  • To cope with life stressors, such as: moving, family divorce, or financial difficulties.
  • To fit in and/or be accepted by peers.
  • To cope with a mental health condition, such as: depression, anxiety or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
  • To cope with a traumatic past, such as being a victim of abuse.
  • To escape a world in which they don’t feel they belong.

As you can see, many of the reasons cited involve coping, getting away from life stressors and not feeling loved. Unfortunately, teens don’t realize that drugs are only a temporary solution to a potentially long-term problem.

Drugs can and will destroy relationships, sabotage academics, and end a career. Not to mention, the harmful effects on the body, particularly adolescent brain development.

The following are some of the effects drugs can have on the adolescent brain:

  • Alcohol abuse during adolescence negatively impacts the hippocampus (the brain’s memory center).
  • Using drugs delays developing executive functions (i.e., judgment, planning and completing tasks, meeting goals) making it more difficult to cope with the pressures and stress of everyday life.
  • Drug use confuses the brain’s reward circuits (the dopamine system) which results in teens feeling bad when they aren’t using and going back for more which only makes matters worse.

Teen Drug Use by the Numbers

So how many teens are using drugs? According to reports, more than 65% of teens have used alcohol, more than 40% used illegal drugs and around 25% used cigarettes at some point before entering or while in high school. Make no mistake, the United States is showing a downward trend in drug use among teens and that’s news to celebrate. We are definitely on the right path, but most would agree that there is work to be done. If we are going to truly make a positive impact on deterring people from drugs, we have to start early.

Research tells us approximately 90% of adults who develop a substance use disorder report using drugs before they reached 18 years of age. So prevention in the adolescent years is paramount. Sadly, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2012, about 23.1 million Americans (8.9 %) needed substance abuse treatment, but only 2.5 million people (1%) received treatment.

According to a recent report Reducing Teen Substance Misuse: What Really Works, some states are doing a better job of reaching youth than others. The report looked at 10 key indicators of evidence-based policies and programs that can improve the overall well-being of teens and have been positively correlated with preventing and reducing substance abuse.

The key indicators researchers looked at were:

  1. Supporting Academic Achievement
  2. Preventing Bullying
  3. Preventing Smoking
  4. Preventing Underage Alcohol Sales
  5. Screening, Intervention and Referral to Treatment Support
  6. Mental Health Funding
  7. Depression Treatment
  8. Good Samaritan Laws
  9. Treatment and Recovery Support for Prescription Drug Misuse
  10. Sentencing Reform

The report also revealed 24 states that scored five or lower out of ten key indicators. Below are the scores, listed state-by-state:

    • Scoring the lowest score of 3 out of 10:

      Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi and Wyoming


    • Scoring 4 out 10:

      Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Nebraska, Nevada, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia


    • Scoring 5 out of 10:

      Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, North Dakota and Oklahoma


    • Scoring 6 out 10:

      Alabama, Illinois, Missouri, Rhode Island and Utah


    • Scoring 7 out 10:

      Colorado, Iowa, North Carolina and Pennsylvania


    • Scoring 8 out 10:
      Delaware, District of Columbia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin


    • Scoring 9 out 10:

      California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, New Mexico, New York and Vermont


  • Scoring 10 out of 10:

    Minnesota and New Jersey

Additional Information

The report also included other valuable information. Through examining the most recent drug overdose death rates among 12- to 25-year-olds, the report found:

  • From 1999-2001, no state had a youth drug overdose death rate above 6.1 per 100,000. By 2011-13, 33 states were above 6.1 per 100,000.
  • Young adults ages 19 to 25 were at an increased risk for a fatal overdose.
  • Males were 2.5 times more likely to overdose as females (10.4 vs. 4.1 per 100,000).
  • Prescription painkillers, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, were responsible for more than 50% of all drug overdose deaths in 2013.
  • West Virginia had the highest rate of drug overdose deaths (12.6 per 100,000 youth). This was five times higher than the lowest rates which were in North Dakota (2.2 per 100,000).

In the past 12 years:

  • Overdose death rates have more than doubled in 18 states (Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina and Tennessee).
  • Overdose death rates have more than tripled in twelve states (Arkansas, Delaware, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, Oklahoma, Utah and West Virginia)
  • Overdose death rates have more than quadrupled in five states (Kansas, Montana, Ohio, Wisconsin and Wyoming).

Prevention is the Key

The increase in youth drug overdose deaths was attributed to the increase in prescription drug abuse. Also to blame is the rise in heroin use. Heroin use among people between the ages of 18 and 25 years has more than doubled in the past decade and 45% youth who use heroin are also addicted to prescription painkillers.

For years we have relied on campaigns like “Just Say No” and programs like D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) to encourage teens to resist the luring power of drugs, but according to this report we need to take proactive measures to educate our youth about the dangers of drug use. The best way to tackle drug use is to focus efforts on prevention programs in schools and the community. If drug use is already occurring, it is essential to intervene as soon as possible. Lastly, we need to understand treatment and recovery is a long-term process that requires commitment.

By far, prevention works best in deterring teen drug use. By increasing public awareness, and using evidence-based programs that have a track record of success, we can continue to watch drug abuse decline with youth in this nation.

With the shocking statistics on death due to drug overdose, it is clear that there is still a lot of work to be accomplished. It is going to take all of us working together (teens, parents, school, and community) to collectively decrease drug use.

One thing is certain, one life lost to drugs is one life too many.

Image Courtesy of iStock