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Back to School: The Scope of Substance Abuse in High Schools Today

Today, more than 1 in 4 teenagers claim that they have personally witnessed illegal drug use in real life. The most common place they have seen drug use? Right on school property.

The Center on Addiction’s latest study of high schoolers – released June 2019 – reveals that substance abuse in school, and specifically among high school students, is widespread. On top of this, most teenagers today say they are not concerned with the potential dangers of drug and alcohol use. In fact, the majority of those surveyed said they were likely to use or try substances in the future. As we enter into back to school season, this is a scary reality for parents and teens alike.

As high schoolers prepare to go back to class in the coming weeks, it’s important for parents to be present, to be aware, and to educate their teens about the dangers of drug use at an early age. In this article, Turnbridge answers all you should know about substance abuse among high school students.

When – and Why – Are Teens Using Drugs in High School?

As we’ve discussed in a previous article, teenagers are most likely to try drugs during the summer months, generally during their high school years. In addition, drug-related ER visits typically peak during the summertime. This makes sense, as summer vacation represents an idle time for teens, typically with less responsibility and less supervision. However, this new data shows that even at school, surrounded by teachers and peers, teenagers are at risk. In fact, it is substance-using peers that often increase teens’ propensity to try and use drugs.

Research has long told us that teenagers are very concerned with their social life and status. Adolescence is a period of establishing relationships, and for many, this involves trying to “fit in” and look “cool” among friend groups. Think going to parties, skipping class, smoking on campus. Think peer pressure. As noted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, drug-using peers are one of the most critical predictors of a teenager trying drugs. And the Center on Addiction’s new data supports this.

Today, over 60 percent of teens aged 15 to 17 have close friends who drink or use drugs. About 40 percent of these teens have a few close friends who smoke marijuana, while 12 percent have friends who abuse prescription drugs. What’s more? 4 out of 5 these teens said they are likely to try a substance in the future. Overall, adolescents with at least one friend who uses drugs are 5.5x more likely to have intentions of trying nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs down the road, compared to those who do not have drug-using friends. Teens who actually see drug abuse in real life are also at increased risk.

It doesn’t help that the availability of drugs is there, in and outside schools. According to the Center on Addiction’s survey, more than half of teenagers find it easy to access nicotine, alcohol, and other drugs. About 20 percent of these teens report they can get marijuana within a day, if they wanted to.


How Many High Schoolers are Drinking and Using Drugs?

According to the latest Monitoring the Future survey, about half of teens have use an illicit drug by the end of high school. About 6 in every 10 students drink alcohol by high school graduation.

Which drugs are they using specifically? Alcohol is by far the most common substance used among high school students. However, marijuana use falls closely behind. More than one-third (36%) of high school students today have used marijuana in their lifetime, and 20 percent have used an illicit drug beyond marijuana – these include drugs like prescription opioids, inhalants, and stimulants like cocaine. You can learn more about the predominance of drugs in school here.

What are the Effects of Substance Abuse in High School?

Adolescence is one of the most critical windows for brain development. In fact, a person’s brain does not fully develop until age 25 – and the years leading up to this are among the most dynamic for the pruning and maturing process. That said, anything you do to disrupt this process – such as substance abuse – will affect how your brain develops, including how you think, learn, and retain information.

Using drugs and drinking alcohol during the teen years, as the brain develops, can result in:

  • Lower grades and IQ
  • Trouble focusing in class
  • Higher absent rate from school and extracurricular activities
  • Increased potential for dropping out of school (with one study reporting that one-third of high school dropouts indicate alcohol and drug use was an important contributor)

These are in addition to the typical effects of drug use, including poisoning and overdose.

Marijuana, the illicit drug most prevalent among high schoolers, has been found to have notable effects on the brain and body. Even if you’re teen is telling you that marijuana is “natural” and “legal,” and even that “everyone is doing it,” know that there are risks. Research shows that marijuana affects a person’s memory, attention, and ability to learn. Students who smoke marijuana are more likely to get lower grades and drop out of high school. One recent study showed that heavy marijuana use during adolescence can even reduce a person’s IQ up to as much as 8 points. Not to mention, it is highly addictive. Most young people in drug treatment are there for a marijuana addiction. Nearly one-third of high schoolers also report knowing someone who is addicted to marijuana.

How Can Drug Use Be Prevented in the High School Years?

There are many ways that teenagers can learn about drug use, and many tactics that can be implemented to prevent them from using drugs – educational or prevention programs in schools, prevention messaging in the media, and guidance from credible adults are just some of the many. However, perhaps the most impactful prevention method stems from you, the parent.

Parent involvement is one of the most important factors in a teenager’s decision to use drugs. Parents who are involved in their child’s life, supervising them and ensuring they stay on track at school, are one example. Parents who have open and honest conversations with their child, and listen to them about important issues in life, are another example. Parents who know where their children are, who they hang out with, and even what they see on social media, are also key in preventing substance abuse.

In the Center on Addiction survey, teens who described their relationship with their parents as ‘excellent’ were nearly 2x more likely to say they did not anticipate trying substances in the future. These teens expressed that their parents knew their friends and whereabouts, have an open and trusting relationship, and that they spend free time together. Teens that reported eating dinner with their family every night also expressed less likelihood to try drugs.

As a parent, you play a great role in your child’s life and high school experience. Even though you are not backpacking up everyday to go to school with your teen, you can affect the choices that your child makes. By educating your teen on the dangers of early drug use and the potential of addiction, your teen can go into school each day equipped with this powerful knowledge. By talking to your teen, and truly understanding his or her needs and experiences, you can make a difference.

Learn more about teen drug use, and the reality of drugs in high school, by calling Turnbridge at 877-581-1793. You may also view our infographic about the academic impact. If your loved one is abusing substances and in need of teen-focused addiction treatment, please do not hesitate to reach out. Turnbridge is a teen and young adult rehab center with programs for both young and women battling substance addiction