Heroin-Addicted Teens Have Unique Mental Health Problems
In the U.S., a small but notable number of teenagers use heroin, the powerfully addictive opioid drug associated with potentially fatal cases of overdose. Consumption of this drug and other types of mind-altering, addictive substances can have a profound impact on any given teen’s mental health. In a study published in 2014 in the Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse, a team of Irish researchers compared the damaging mental health changes found in adolescents addicted to heroin to the damaging mental changes found in adolescents addicted to other substances not classified as opioids.
Teen Heroin Use
Every year, the National Institute on Drug Abuse sponsors a nationwide survey project called Monitoring the Future that tracks annual trends in heroin use among all American teenagers enrolled in eighth grade, 10th grade and 12th grade. Recent figures from Monitoring the Future indicate that 0.6 percent of 12th graders, 0.6 percent of 10th graders and 0.5 percent of eighth graders consume heroin at least once over the course of a year. In any given month, 0.3 percent of 12th, 10th and eighth graders use heroin. Roughly 1.1 percent of all 12th and 10th graders have ever used the drug in their lifetimes; eighth graders have a lifetime heroin use rate of 0.8 percent.
Yearly and monthly rates for heroin use were almost identical for all 12th, 10th and eighth graders between 2012 and 2013. Broadly speaking, teen heroin intake has not changed considerably throughout the 2000s, and intake of the drug is less common than intake of a number of other illicit/illegal drugs (e.g., cocaine and MDMA). Teen heroin intake also lags behind the abusive intake of medications such as amphetamine and other stimulants (commonly prescribed to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD), opioid painkillers and sedative-hypnotics (i.e. tranquilizers and anti-anxiety medications).
Heroin addiction is one specific form of opioid use disorder, a diagnosable condition that includes all forms of opioid drug and medication abuse and addiction. Like all opioid substances, heroin triggers addiction by changing the chemical environment in the part of the brain responsible for generating pleasurable sensations. A person who undergoes this lasting chemical change has an ongoing need to consume heroin or some other powerful opioid in order to feel “normal” and avoid the onset of highly unpleasant (although non-fatal) opioid withdrawal. According to estimates reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the number of people in the U.S. affected by heroin addiction rose by approximately 100 percent between 2002 and 2012. However, the actual increase may have been much higher, since the most commonly cited research sources don’t include homeless people or people in jail or prison (two population groups with a relatively high rate of heroin consumption).
Affected Teens’ Mental Health Problems
In the study published in the Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse, researchers from Ireland’s Trinity College Dublin and HSE National Drug Treatment Centre used information collected from 120 adolescents to compare the mental health risks associated with teen heroin addiction to the mental health risks associated with an addiction to a substance that doesn’t contain opioids. Fifty-two of the teens enrolled in the study had a heroin addiction, while the remaining 68 participants had an addiction to a non-opioid. The researchers used a screening tool called the Beck Youth Inventory to compare the mental health risks between the two groups. The Beck Youth Inventory is a collection of five questionnaires designed to probe aspects of child and adolescent mental health, such as depression-related risks, anxiety-related risks, anger-related risks, risks for socially disruptive behavior and the ability to form an accurate and sustaining sense of self.
The researchers concluded that the Beck Youth Inventory results of the teenagers affected by heroin addiction differed significantly from the results of the teenagers affected by other forms of non-opioid-related addiction. Specifically, they found that the teens affected by heroin addiction exhibited higher levels of disruptive behavior, had more depression symptoms, had more anxiety symptoms and had a generally poorer concept of self. Teenage girls in the study dealing with heroin addiction had particular problems with disruptive behavior and a poor concept of self.
The study’s authors don’t know why teenagers affected by heroin addiction apparently have more mental health problems than teenagers affected by non-opioid-related addiction. However, they believe their findings underscore the complicated mental health profiles of teen substance users.