Teen Substance Abuse Biggest Health Problem in U.S., Study Says
The report finds that almost half of the high school students in the U.S. drink, smoke or use drugs and that one-third of them meet criteria for addiction to at least one of these substances. The report also shows that teens are using smokeless tobacco more, with rates increasing since 2003.
The report contains 400 pages of findings from what the authors say is the most comprehensive study of teen substance use so far. The findings are the result of surveys administered to 1,000 high school students, 1,000 parents of high school students and 500 teachers, principals, coaches and counselors.
Major findings from the study include:
- Alcohol is the substance most often chosen by high school students, followed closely behind by cigarettes and marijuana and prescription drugs.
- Approximately 75 percent of high school students have tried at least one substance.
- Two-thirds of high school aged students have experimented with more than one substance.
- The perception of marijuana by teens is potentially dangerous. Approximately 25 percent of respondents believed marijuana to be harmless and one in six considered it to be medicine.
The report also provided support for the belief that a teen who begins using substances is at an increased risk for the development of a substance use disorder when compared with those who experiment in their adult years. Individuals who initiate the use of addictive substances before they turn 18 are six times more at risk for developing a substance use disorder compared to those who began using a substance after the age of 21.
Foster says some teens are particularly vulnerable to initiating substance use. For instance, a teen whose parents regularly use alcohol, drugs or other substances may have a higher likelihood of trying substances. In addition, those with certain mental health disorders or who are victims of a childhood trauma are at an increased risk.
The report also reveals a significant gap in treatment. While 1.6 million teens met criteria for a substance use disorder, only approximately 100,000 have been enrolled in a treatment program.
Teens who initiate drug use at an early age are more likely to develop an addiction, and expose themselves to the risks associated with drug use for a longer period of time. Alcohol, tobacco and drugs are all associated with increased risk of heart disease and certain cancers.
Besides long-term health risks, teens may also experienced negative consequences that are an immediate result of substance use. Alcohol consumption is associated with higher rates of assault, dangerous sexual behaviors, vehicular accidents and injury. Misuse of prescription drugs can result in a range of harmful effects, including psychosis and overdose.
In addition to both long- and short-term health consequences, substance use can impact teens in other negative ways. Relationships with parents and other loved ones can suffer, along with problems related to academic achievement and participation in extracurricular activities.
Parents should be aware of the impact that they can make on their child’s decision to use or avoid addictive substances. A growing body of research suggests that parents may be the single most influential presence in whether a teen decides to experiment with drugs, alcohol and tobacco. This influence has been shown in some research to be more powerful than the opinions of peers or other factors.
Sharing the risks and dangers associated with substance use can occur within an open dialogue that takes place periodically over the course of childhood. Parents should share their concerns openly with their child and encourage their child to ask questions about substance use.