The teen years can be both an exciting and difficult time in someone’s life that is often marked by dramatic changes. These changes can include physical, social, emotional, and financial rearrangements that can lead to increased levels of stress, depression, and anxiety. This is often a time when someone will first be introduced to drugs and alcohol in their social life and the temptations or pressures to use drugs and alcohol may be intense. In addition to substance use, the teen years are when many mental illnesses may first emerge which introduces unique challenges into an already sensitive situation. Here, we will take a look at the risks and struggles that many teens face with regard to drugs, alcohol, and mental illness as well as some helpful ways to find help for these issues.
Teens and adolescents experience mental health issues at greater rates than any other age group. The stress associated with these transitional years probably has a part to play, but many mental illnesses are triggered by biological factors that most often come into play in the early teens to early twenties. One study found that fully 50% of all mental illnesses emerge by age 14, while 75% of mental illnesses have emerged by age 24. This goes to illustrate the extremely high rate of mental health conditions experienced by people in their teen years compared to older people.
Even though mental health issues are very common among teens, only a small proportion of teens receive mental health services for these issues. According to one study, while one in five teens has a mental health issue, only about a third of them receive treatment. The mental health issues that received treatment most often were ADHD and behavioral disorders, although the mental health issues most closely associated with severe distress and negative long-term outcomes were overlooked. In particular, only one out of five teens with anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and substance use disorders receive professional treatment and help and the shortcoming in treatment services is most notable for anxiety disorders and substance use disorders.
It is especially concerning that anxiety disorders receive such little attention, as roughly a third of teens in the US suffer from some form of anxiety disorder. There is a strong and well-established connection between anxiety disorders and substance use disorders, and having one condition increases the odds of experiencing the other. In particular, anxiety disorders not only increase the chances for substance use disorder but also greatly increase the chances for substance dependence i.e. a physical addiction.
While the most overt mental health issues among teens such as ADHD receive the most attention in the form of treatment, it is important to be more sensitive and aware of the subtler mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and substance abuse. These conditions, in particular, are much more strongly associated with negative long-term outcomes, and some of them, such as the eating disorder anorexia nervosa, have an estimated mortality rate of 10%. It is crucial for teens to get the help and treatment they need if they are to find relief and lead a happy life.
Substance abuse is another prevalent issue among teens, and while it shares many contributing factors to mental illness, it is a distinct condition. Among people with a substance use disorder during their lifetime, 50% of them exhibited substance abuse issues by the age of 15. Although substance use disorder shares a similar age of onset to many mental health issues, substance use disorder commonly has a later onset and a sharper increase with age as do other mental health issues.
Peer pressure and a teen’s family life are both major contributors to teenage substance abuse. Peer pressure is a major contributor in a direct way, as someone will seek acceptance and fellowship by imitating their friends. As for the impact of the family on a teen’s substance abuse, one study found that teens who have more unsupervised time away from their parents are much more likely to engage in smoking cigarettes (1.35x more likely), drinking (1.85x more likely), and other illicit drug use (1.77x more likely). Additionally, and maybe obviously, a SAMHSA report states that a teen living with a parent who suffers from a substance use disorder is much more likely to have a substance use disorder themselves.
There is also a very strong connection between teen drug or alcohol use, particularly the age at which this begins, and lifelong outcomes for drug and alcohol-related issues. For example, a study from 2019 found that teens who first used marijuana or alcohol before the age of 14 ended up having much higher rates of alcohol or drug addiction later in life. There have been studies that indicate there are different contributing factors at different stages of life. For example, one study showed that early teen substance abuse seems to be influenced more by community and family factors while mid-to-late teen substance use is influenced more by peers. As far as addressing the problem of teen substance abuse, there is no single answer. What is certain, however, is that if a teen is struggling with substance abuse, their chances of recovery are significantly better if they enter a substance abuse treatment center as soon as possible.
There is a very close relationship between mental health conditions and substance abuse, and while these are distinct and independent conditions, they may affect, amplify, and worsen one another. Several mental health issues that are quite common in teens can be fairly accurate predictors of future substance use disorders, especially if the teen does not receive treatment for these mental health issues. For example, ADHD is fairly common in this day and age, but when a teen has ADHD, they are between 1.48x to 5.22x more likely to have a substance use disorder with either alcohol, marijuana, or other illicit drugs.
Some of the mental health issues that are most strongly correlated to co-occurring substance use disorders are anxiety disorders and eating disorders. For anxiety disorders, there is not only a strong connection to substance use disorder but an even stronger connection to substance dependence. In someone with an anxiety disorder, they are 1.4x as likely to experience substance use disorder, but a staggering 4.5x more likely to suffer from a drug or alcohol dependence.
As far as co-occurring eating disorders and substance use disorders, the relationship is strong. The relationship varies between eating disorders, but a teen with Anorexia Nervosa (AN) is 3x more likely to suffer from a substance use disorder, and with Bulimia Nervosa (BN) a teen is 4.6x more likely to suffer from a substance use disorder. Co-occurrence between these conditions applies in the other direction as well, as over 35% of people with a substance use disorder also have a co-occurring eating disorder.
Among teens with substance use disorders in America, somewhere between 50% to 71% of them also suffer from a mental health condition. When substance abuse and mental illness are co-occurring, the treatment and recovery process can be more difficult than it would be for one condition alone. Finding comprehensive, integrated care that can provide treatment for both conditions at the same time will give someone the best possible chance of achieving long-term recovery and living a happy and healthy life.
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Having reliable and trustworthy mental health resources can make a big difference for a teen who may be struggling. In this post-COVID era, many resources are available online to provide help to someone struggling with mental health issues. That being said, there is still a need for in-person, brick-and-mortar healthcare facilities and appointments. That being said, we have compiled a list of several online mental health resources in addition to tools that can help someone find in-person mental healthcare services in their area.
Some helpful mental health resources for teens include:
Teen substance abuse is a serious condition that requires professional treatment, care, and support if someone hopes to achieve long-term recovery. There are many different online resources for helping teens recover from substance abuse, but in-person, comprehensive care is most effective.
Some helpful online and in-person substance abuse treatment resources for teens include:
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