During middle and high school, many teenagers are exposed to drugs and alcohol for the first time. In 2016, more than 55 percent of high school seniors tried alcohol, more than 35 percent used marijuana, 14 percent took another illegal drug, and 5 percent used opioid pain relievers for nonmedical use, according to a survey by the National Institutes of Health.
Teens are naturally curious about these substances and their effects, but experimenting with drugs and alcohol can lead to serious problems. Learning about substance use and its effects can help you or someone you know get help when you need it. When people lose control over the impulse to drink or use drugs, even when it makes them sick, unsafe, or unable to function well, their substance use is a problem.
Everyone has a different experience during middle and high school, but many teenagers face similar challenges. Teens may be feeling insecure, working hard to fit in, or getting stressed out about balancing schoolwork with sports or jobs. That’s when using drugs and alcohol may seem like an easy fix. Some common challenges in teenagers’ lives include:
Teens who have been abused or had tough experiences early in life can be more likely to have problems with drugs and alcohol. Young people are also at greater risk than other teens if their family members have been through an addiction, their mothers used drugs or alcohol during pregnancy, or they haven’t had the guidance of a parent or other adult.
As students prepare for high school graduation and applying to college or getting a job, stress can build. Struggling to maintain a strong grade point average or turning in college or job applications may push some students to seek relief through drugs or alcohol. Some teens also are attracted to substance use to try to improve their social life, using drugs or alcohol to loosen up or fit in.
During the teen years, the brain is still developing, and that increases the risk of developing problems with drugs and alcohol. In fact, most adults with a substance use disorder report that they started using drugs as teenagers. It’s important to deal with a teen’s drug or alcohol problem early because it can affect the brain, making it more difficult to stop or control substance use through willpower alone.
Many students experiment with drugs and alcohol, and it can be difficult to tell when substance use becomes a problem — especially in ourselves. It’s time to do something about it when teenage alcohol and drug abuse interferes with daily life or causes health issues, including:
Common signs of a substance use disorder can include loss of sleep or appetite, mood changes, dilated pupils, strange and unpredictable behavior, or losing interest in normal activities. If you notice signs of a drug problem or signs of an alcohol problem in yourself, a friend, or a loved one, it may be time to reach out for support.
While it may be hard to talk about substance use, opening up to a parent, guardian, or another caring adult can help a teen connect with the right support and treatment. If you aren’t comfortable talking about these issues with your parent or guardian, your school’s guidance counselor can put you in touch with support groups and resources that have worked for other young people. In some cases, teen rehab programs are the best way to treat a drug or alcohol problem.
Reaching out to other teens and adults who have overcome their drug and alcohol problems can help young people to figure out which treatment option is right for them. No one has to face problems with drugs and alcohol alone. Help is available.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Adolescent Health provides national statistics on adolescent substance use, the risks of using drugs and alcohol as a teenager, and several resources for both students and parents.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse provides information about individual drugs and their effects on teens along with a list of treatment options for substance use problems.
Just Think Twice was developed in partnership with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to show teens the myths about drugs and drug abuse through real-life stories from young people who have been through an addiction.