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The Consequences of Substance Abuse in Adolescence

consequences of substance abuse in teenagers

Drugs and alcohol pose serious danger to a teenager’s health, but the consequences of substance abuse during adolescence go well beyond a person’s physical wellbeing. Substance abuse during the teen years can also have detrimental effects on one’s mental health, academic performance, social relationships, and legal reputation. It can be both life-altering and life-threatening. 

However, teenagers do not always think about the consequences before they try drugs or alcohol. The adolescent brain is not yet fully mature, and the parts dedicated to decision-making and impulse-control are still developing. As such, parents must help their teenagers learn how to make healthy choices. This can be done by having open conversations at home and educating teens about the consequences of substance abuse at a young age.

The Physical Consequences of Substance Abuse in Adolescence

As warned by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), substance abuse during adolescence is associated with risky sexual behaviors, experiences of violence, and increased suicide risks. These dangers are listed on top of the more obvious physical consequences of early substance use, such as physical illness, injury, addiction, and overdose.

The most common physical effects of substance abuse in adolescence include:

  • Injury due to accidents, such as car accidents while driving under the influence. This is because teenagers are more prone to take risks and make poor decisions while intoxicated. SAMHSA reports that 1 in 4 car crashes among teenagers involves an underage drunk driver.
  • Transmission of STDs, HIV, and AIDS. Youth who use drugs intravenously are at higher risk of HIV and AIDS as a result of sharing needles. However, teens who use drugs and alcohol are generally more likely to engage in unprotected sexual behaviors.
  • Violence. An increasing number of teenagers have experienced sexual violence, and those who abuse drugs and alcohol are more likely to be victims of sexual and physical violence than their counterparts. Additionally, adolescents who drink and use drugs are more prone to develop violent behaviors and tendencies, which can affect other areas of their lives.
  • Internal organ damage, which can occur from prolonged drug abuse. Every drug affects the body differently, but all have the potential for adverse consequences (even legal drugs!). For example, abuse of prescription opioids can lead to respiratory distress. Inhalants can cause damage to the lungs, heart, liver, and kidneys. Cocaine poses a risk of stroke and seizures. Ecstasy is associated with the risk of liver failure and heart failure.
  • Overdose. Teenagers today are at high-risk for drug overdose. This is due to a combination of factors, including the fact that more and more drugs are being laced with fentanyl – a dangerous opioid that, with a dose as small as a grain of salt, could take someone’s life.
  • Suicide. According to nationally-cited studies, over 50 percent of all suicides are associated with alcohol and drug dependence. Specifically among youth, those with suicidal behaviors were also more likely to use and abuse substances than their peers – likely in efforts to cope with negative feelings and mental health symptoms.
  • Substance addiction. Perhaps the most obvious physical consequence of repeated drug and alcohol abuse is a substance use disorder, commonly known as addiction. Adolescents who use drugs and drink alcohol are more prone to developing a substance use disorder, due to the fact that substances were introduced while the brain was still in development. 

The Effects of Substance Abuse on Adolescent Mental Health

In addition to physical health, substance abuse in adolescence can severely hinder a young person’s mental health—both in the short- and long-term. 

The relationship between substance abuse and mental health is multifaceted. On one hand, certain drugs of abuse can trigger symptoms of a mental health disorder. For example, marijuana – the most commonly abused drug among teenagers – has been associated with episodes of psychosis. Some prescription medications, like stimulants, have been known to cause manic behaviors and unusual mood swings. Many drugs, especially among users who have built a dependence to them, have been linked to the eventual development of depression and anxiety. With these mental health problems comes a heightened risk of suicide among teens who drink and use drugs.

On top of this, underlying mental health disorders commonly lead young people to use drugs and alcohol. Teens who feel bad (such as depressed or anxious) will often turn to drugs as a form of self-medication. According to psychiatrists at The Child Mind Institute, roughly 50 percent of adolescents with untreated mental health disorders will end up battling a substance use disorder in life.

The Academic Consequences of Substance Abuse

Adolescent substance abuse has been associated with declining grades, truancy, and school drop-outs. This is commonly because teens who become dependent on drugs and alcohol prioritize their substance use over other obligations, like academics. Additionally, substance use has the potential to disrupt cognitive abilities like memory and concentration. Adolescents who abuse substances are more likely to experience learning obstacles and difficulties, and therefore may be more likely to see poor academic performance or skip school as a result. Learn more about the consequences of substance abuse on academics here.

The Effects of Substance Abuse on Teen Relationships

No matter your age, substance abuse can have a very negative influence on your relationships over time. For substance-dependent teenagers, the constant need to seek, use, and recover from drugs and alcohol inherently disrupts their ability to form and maintain meaningful friendships. Teens who use drugs and alcohol are also less likely to engage in school and extracurricular activities, adding another obstacle for establishing relationships with peers. These teens will often end up bonding with other peers who use drugs and alcohol, which can put them in difficult and dangerous situations where they lack support.

In addition to social relationships, substance abuse in adolescence can also negatively affect family dynamics. Drug-using teenagers tend to withdraw from family members, break house rules, disrespect their parents, and deplete their family emotionally and physically over time. 

The Behavioral and Legal Consequences of Substance Abuse in Adolescence

The consequences of substance abuse in adolescence go beyond the home and even school campus. Teenagers who use drugs and drink alcohol are more likely to get in trouble with the law. As reported by the U.S. Department of Justice, “Teens who use drugs are more likely to engage in violent behavior, steal, abuse other drugs, and join gangs.” 

Statistics support this sentiment. More than half of youth in the juvenile justice system reported using a drug in the month before their crime. More than one-third (almost 40 percent) reported being under the influence of drugs at the time of their offense. Serious crimes committed among drug-influenced teenagers often include assault, theft, and selling drugs.

Fortunately, the Department also explains that parents are the most powerful influence on their kids when it comes to using illicit drugs. Parents, therefore, play an incredibly important role in the prevention of early substance use.

Preventing Your Teenager from Using Drugs and Alcohol 

Although you might feel like your teen does not listen to you, or does not care about what you have to say, parents have the ability to positively influence their teens’ actions. The CDC reports that one of the most powerful protective factors against drug and alcohol abuse in adolescence is parent engagement. Other protective factors include family support, parental disapproval of substance use, parental monitoring, and connectedness at school.

So, how do you get through to your teenager? Open conversation and education are great ways to start. Talk to your teenager about substance abuse and their own perspective on it. Ask questions about if they are using drugs or alcohol, or if their friends use substances. Ask if they know about the dangers and consequences of substance abuse in adolescence. If they are unaware of the consequences above, teach them about these risks. Give your teens reasons not to use drugs. Educating your teen about the dangers of drug abuse can help them make healthy decisions long-term. Additionally, as a parent, you can teach your teen how to say “no” and resist pressure from peers. Give them the tools and the knowledge they need to feel confident in their decision to stay away from drugs.

Of course, if you are worried about your teen’s substance abuse, do not hesitate to have a professional resource on hand. As you can see from the above, adolescent substance abuse can have devastating consequences on a person’s physical and mental wellbeing. You can protect your teen by getting them the help they need. Talk to your pediatrician or contact a treatment professional for support.

Turnbridge is an expert in adolescent substance use and mental health disorders. If you have any concerns about your teen, know that we are one call away. You may contact us anytime at 877-581-1793. Or, you may start exploring our treatment programs online today.