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A recent study found that high school students who smoke, drink, or use marijuana are more likely to suffer from suicidal thoughts, feel depressed, have psychotic episodes, and exhibit inattention or hyperactivity. Researchers also found that increases in psychiatric symptoms occurred even among teens with relatively low levels of use.
The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, consisted of nearly 15,000 high school students across the state of Massachusetts.
“We sought to determine whether substance use was dose-dependently associated with various psychiatric symptoms in a large sample of high school students, and whether these associations differed depending on the type of substance used,” says senior author Randi M. Schuster, PhD, an associate professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at MGH and the director of School-Based Research and Program Development within MGH’s Center for Addiction Medicine.
Teens are at a particularly unique risk when it comes to substance use. Teens are not only more likely to use substances, but they are also at higher risk for adverse side effects and addiction. Both of these risks are due to teens’ developing brains.
During adolescence, the brain undergoes some of the most dramatic changes. As teens reach high school age, the prefrontal cortex is still developing. This leaves them prone to impulsive reactions and difficulty with long-term reasoning. This, paired with outside influences like peer pressure or the desire to fit in, can lead many teens to experiment with drugs or alcohol.
The introduction of substances can result in the brain developing strong memories of pleasure and reward around substance use, which can increase the likelihood of ongoing substance use and the potential for addiction.
Teen substance abuse also poses many other risks, particularly the risk of serious mental health concerns.
As researchers from the study noted, teens who use substances like alcohol, nicotine, or marijuana are at a higher risk for negative mental health symptoms like suicidal ideation and anxiety. Along with these symptoms, teens who use substances are also at a higher risk for several mental health conditions.
Some of the most common mental health conditions observed among teens who abuse substances include:
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As a parent, bringing up serious topics with your children may be uncomfortable, especially when they are concerned about drugs or alcohol. Parents often say they feel “unprepared” or “lack expertise” on the subject, and many opt out of having the conversation altogether.
Studies show that parents have the ability to play a major role in their child’s tendency to experiment with drugs or alcohol. Children who have conversations about substance abuse with their parents are not only less likely to use substances; they are also less likely to use them in ways that are harmful if they do.
The study’s authors agree that early intervention and expanded policy efforts are needed to ensure teens and parents alike are aware of the dangers that substance abuse poses to young people.
“Our study’s results highlight the prevalence of psychiatric co-morbidities among young people who use substances, and they lend strong support for the notion that screening, prevention, intervention and policy efforts need to comprehensively address targets beyond substance use alone,” says lead author Brenden Tervo-Clemmens, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School. “Also, these efforts may not need to necessarily be specific to a given substance, but rather reflect the multifaceted mental health needs of all adolescents who use substances.”
If you’re concerned that your teen may be abusing drugs or alcohol, the time to seek help is now. The developing brain is sensitive, and the sooner a teen can recover from the harmful effects of substance abuse, the less likely they are to develop serious, potentially life-altering physical or mental health conditions.
Zachary Pottle earned his B.A. in Professional Writing from Saint Leo University and has over three years of journalistic experience. His passion for writing has led him to a career in journalism, where he specializes in writing about stories in the pain management and healthcare industry. His main goal as a writer is to bring readers accurate, trustworthy content that serve as useful resources for bettering their lives or the lives of those around them.