Substance use among youth is a problem we must tackle

Between Oct. 23 and Oct. 31, schools and communities across the country took part in events celebrating Red Ribbon Week. This national campaign, which launched in the 1980s, promotes drug-free communities with initiatives targeting school-age youth. But is it really important to continue pushing substance abuse education when it comes to children? The answer is yes.

There is a direct correlation between drug and alcohol use among youth and the development of substance use disorders later in life. Education and early intervention are important to help prevent substance use or alcohol use disorders among young people and adults alike, and while weeklong campaigns like Red Ribbon contribute to raising awareness, the need knows no time limit.

Why do teens turn to drugs and alcohol?

Genetics, mental health, and traumatic experiences are already a few factors that can contribute to the development of reckless behaviors and substance use disorders in teens and adults. For those whose brains and emotional maturity are still developing, there is an added risk of impulsive decisions and a lack of understanding of the consequences of one’s actions.  

Dr. Ralph Alvarado, a board-certified pediatrician and medical director for Isaiah House Treatment Center, an addiction recovery service in Kentucky, says there are a lot of factors when it comes to teenagers being susceptible to drug and alcohol use. 

“Probably the biggest thing is peer pressure, which is common at that age, and a desire for a lot of kids to fit in,” Alvarado says. 

While teens may feel pressured by others to drink alcohol or use drugs, the consequences of those actions could be devastating.

“Sometimes folks, they try something once and that’s it; they are automatically hooked,” Alvarado says. “It’s also genetics and how an individual’s brain is wired. There may be a higher risk of having an immediate addictive response.” 

While peer pressure has long been a term associated with the use of drugs and alcohol among youth, it could be that a teenager is simply looking for an escape if they are mentally or emotionally struggling and not receiving the support they need.

“We talk about ACEs, these adverse childhood events. People may have experienced those in a home setting, whether it be verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse,” Alvarado says. These may be traumas directly experienced by the child or that they witnessed happening to others. Kids may not be able to process those traumas and as they get older, they may find that mind-altering substances offer them a way to cope or escape from those feelings. 

“Unfortunately, the family unit has slowly been crumbling in our country for a while,” Alvarado says, and the impact on children and teens is evidence of that.

Drug use among teens an evolving threat

The prevalence of substance use in popular media, changes in the marketing of tobacco and other products, the cultivation of drug culture, and the manner in which substances are consumed are among a few of the challenges families face today in combatting substance use among youth. The approach taken by communities in 2021 cannot be the same as that in the 1980s when drug-free campaigns gained traction. Drugs and drug culture are evolving, whether it is illicit substances made to look and taste like candy, whimsical packaging and flavors, or drug paraphernalia disguised as everyday items. 

One issue plaguing communities is vaping, the use of electronic devices that allows a vapor containing nicotine or other substances to be inhaled. It has been labeled by many health experts as an “epidemic” among youth. 

“The perception is that if it is vaping it is less harmful than combustible tobacco. It is less harmful, but it is still harmful,” Alvarado says. 

In recent years, Kentucky school districts and health officials have teamed up to educate communities on the dangers of vaping, especially as lung illness and injury were reported among young people who used the devices.

While electronic cigarettes are promoted as a nicotine-delivering alternative to combustible tobacco and there is concern over the creation of new generations addicted to nicotine as a result, the rise in the use of vapes among youth has seen other substances consumed by vaping.

The National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics reported in its most recent study that nearly 63% of 12th-grade students who used marijuana within the last year did so through vaping. 

While a variety of substances are being used by teens, including misusing prescription drugs as well as illicit drugs, the use of alcohol and marijuana remains among the most common for youth. Alvarado says there is a misconception among youth and even adults as to the dangers of marijuana use. 

“It is also harmful and has a lot of negative outcomes for kids and even young adults,” Alvarado says, but its legalization in some states and wider acceptance among the public provides a false sense of safety in its use. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those who use marijuana prior to age 12 are twice as likely to develop a mental illness compared to those who first use the substance at age 18 or older. Mental Illness alone could increase a person’s risk of substance use disorder. Additionally, teens are more likely to drive or do other activities while under the influence of marijuana, not recognizing their impairment. 

Much of the marijuana products consumed today are also more potent than in years past, which presents an added danger. There are also numerous ways marijuana and other substances can be consumed, whether it is smoking, vaping, edibles or oils, and this is accompanied by a potential for those substances to be laced with even more harmful substances such as fentanyl. This not only increases the risk of addiction and substance use disorder but also of accidental overdose.According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, signs of substance use among teens include: 

  • Behavioral changes 
  • A change in peer group
  • Carelessness with grooming
  • A decline in academic performance
  • Missing classes or skipping school
  • Loss of interest in favorite activities
  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits 
  • Deteriorating relationships with family and friends

Prevention should start early and involve parents

While the NCDAS reports seeing “significant increases” in destructive substance-related behavior among older teens and young adults, educating middle school-aged children on the dangers of substance use and peer pressure is a good starting point for families. A 2020 report shared by the center cited drug use among eighth-grade students increased 61% between 2016 and 2020 and 21% of students surveyed in 2019 had tried an illicit drug at least once. 

As a pediatrician, Alvarado encourages families to discuss substance youth with kids by the time they enter the sixth grade. 

“It is tough for a lot of parents who still see their 12-year-old as a little kid, but the reality is a lot of kids that age are beginning to experiment with substances or are getting exposed to experimentation,” Alvarado says.

While it is good for schools to be involved in this substance use education, it is paramount parents and guardians have those conversations with their kids to prepare them for those exposures as well as for what is arguably one of the most difficult transitions in a school-age child’s life.Ways to help prevent substance use among youth include:

  • Talking with kids early on about peer pressure and the dangers of substance use
  • Monitoring changes in behavior and other indicators a problem might be present
  • Addressing their emotional and mental health needs 
  • Providing a supportive home environment 
  • Properly disposing of unused prescription medications 
  • Setting a good example

The fight against a growing addiction epidemic is year-round and multigenerational. Educating against the stigma of addiction, encouraging and supporting those in need of addiction recovery services, talking with children about peer pressure and the dangers of drugs and alcohol, and knowing the early signs of addictive behaviors are just a few ways you can help your community and your family.

Isaiah House is here to help

While Isaiah House Treatment Center’s outreach largely involves working with adults and with other recovery resources, building those connections with children and families is another key component to effectively fighting addiction in communities. 

Hilary Blevins, client care navigator supervisor for Isaiah House, recently participated in a Red Ribbon Week event by attending a resource fair in Danville, Ky. 

“Educating families about resources that pertain to drug and alcohol prevention is one of my favorite things to do,” Blevins, who is also in addiction recovery, says. “For a long time, I believed that my story could not help others. That all changed when I started interacting with families in the community and I saw how large the need really is.”

While working with schools, families and community officials to prevent future substance use is among Isaiah House’s outreach and prevention efforts, IH is also here to help those in active addiction and addiction recovery services.

Isaiah House Treatment Center is a faith-based nonprofit recovery resource in Kentucky. We can help you or your loved one navigate recovery in a safe and judgment-free environment. Isaiah House Treatment Center offers short-term and long-term Residential, Intensive Outpatient and Outpatient addiction treatment for men and women. Real Hope Behavioral Health, Isaiah House’s outpatient behavioral health facility, offers counseling for teens.

Isaiah House Treatment Center is focused on offering holistic treatment for substance use disorder. This includes not only addressing the underlying causes of addiction but helping a person recover and equipping them with the tools and skills to succeed in recovery long-term.

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