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The Effects of Drugs on High School Students

high school drug use

About one-third of high school students use illicit drugs by the time they graduate, and more than half drink alcohol by the end of their senior year. This data comes from the most recent Monitoring the Future Survey, which is conducted annually to measure the prevalence of drug use among high school students. These statistics may not be surprising, but they are disheartening, nonetheless. This is because alcohol and drug use can have serious effects, both long-term and short-term, on high school students.

Whether you are a high school student or parent of one, it is important to know that drug use during the teenage years is a cause for concern. We should never shrug it off as “just a phase” of experimentation, or “normal” because other teens are doing it. The fact is, the effects of drug use on high school students are becoming too critical to ignore, especially in a day-in-age where fentanyl-laced drugs are leading to a skyrocketing number of accidental overdose deaths.

Below, we highlight some of the devastating consequences of drugs on high school students.

Effects of Drugs on High School Performance:

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has compiled research linking teen substance abuse to poor academic performance. Specifically, these experts cite lower grades, higher rates of absence, and dropping out as common effects of drug abuse in high school. Below is a full list of potential effects that substance use might have on high school performance:

  • Drop in grades and academic performance
  • Inability to concentrate or retain information
  • Decreased performance on tasks that require executive functioning
  • Skipping school or other related activities
  • Dropping out of school completely

Research supports the above consequences. In a study of teenagers who used marijuana, it was found that heavy marijuana use is directly associated with a reduction in IQ (of up to 8 points). This drug, like many others, affects the brain’s executive function and a user’s level of attention and memory.

It’s no surprise, then, that one-third of high school drop outs report that drug and alcohol use was a key contributing factor in their decision to leave school. Those who smoke marijuana, drink alcohol, or use other drugs are less likely to graduate from high school, attend college, or obtain a degree.

Learn more about the impact of drugs on academics here.

Effects of Drugs on the Teenage Brain:

As suggested above, drugs have a significant impact on a teenager’s brain. This is because the brain is not fully developed during the high school years, and does not fully mature until around age 25. Any drugs or substances introduced during the adolescent years, a key period for brain development, can lead to harrowing effects on a teen’s ability to learn, concentrate, make rational decisions, control impulses, and more. 

When drugs are used during the teen years, they interfere with important neurotransmitters and damage key connections within the brain. As a result, drug use during high school can lead to:

  • Risky behaviors (such as unsafe sex and driving under the influence)
  • Increased likelihood of developing a substance use disorder (i.e. addiction)
  • Increased risk of other mental health conditions, like anxiety and depression
  • Lasting impairment of cognitive functions
  • Impairment of memory and ability to learn
  • An inability to experience pleasure without drugs or alcohol
  • Poor planning and judgement, plus an inability to think consequences through
  • Difficulty controlling emotions and exhibiting self-control

The reason drug use during high school is so risky is because of the state of teenagers’ brain development. The frontal lobe – the brain’s “thinking center” – is not matured, and substance use can affect its ability to develop properly. Drugs re-wire parts of the brain and disrupt its normal processes. They also deplete the brain of certain chemicals, like dopamine. This makes teenagers especially vulnerable to long-term issues like substance addiction, mental illness, and other negative effects.

As cited by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Mental health problems such as depression, developmental lags, apathy, withdrawal, and other psychosocial dysfunctions frequently are linked to substance abuse among adolescents.” Further, teenagers who use drugs are at greater risk of developing conduct problems, violent behaviors, suicidal thoughts, attempted suicide, and self-harm behaviors.  

Learn more about the impact of drugs on teenage brain development here.

Other Dangerous Effects of Drugs on High School Students:

Drug use in high school can lead to many dangerous effects on a teenager’s health and well-being. The effects of drugs will vary depending on a person’s drug of choice, as well as how much they use. Some examples of the effects of drugs on teenagers specifically include:

  • Physical effects like paranoia, lack of coordination, heart problems, seizures, respiratory depression, trouble sleeping, high body temperature, and hallucinations.
  • Mental effects, including poor judgement, developmental lags, substance addiction, mental illness (like depression or schizophrenia), and risk of self-harm or suicide.
  • Social effects, such as damaged relationships with friends and family, isolation from loved ones, increase in violent behaviors and fighting with others, as well as risks like pregnancy and STDs (associated with unsafe sex).
  • Legal effects, such as DUI charges, car accidents, and problems with assault, violence, and stealing.
  • Vocational effects, including lack of interest in school, work, and hobbies, as well as financial loss and distress and discipline problems.

While all of the above can be devastating, the most impactful and dangerous effect of drug use in high school is the increasingly high risk of overdose.

According to an article from UCLA Health, adolescent overdose deaths have climbed exponentially in recent years—for the first time in history. Overdose deaths among U.S. teens doubled in the year 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Then, overdose deaths increased another 21 percent in early 2021. The reason? Fentanyl. Teenagers (and the general population) are purchasing counterfeit pills and laced drugs illegally, many of which are laced with this dangerous narcotic drug. 

Fentanyl is the leading cause of drug overdose in the United States today. No drug is safe from fentanyl. Fentanyl is most commonly found in fake versions of prescription pills like Xanax, OxyContin, and Vicodin, but can also be found in cocaine and marijuana. Often, these drugs are purchased illegally on social media.

Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), warns us: “The tragic increase in overdose deaths among this population suggest that drug use is becoming more dangerous than ever before. It is absolutely crucial to educate young people that pills purchased via social media, given to someone by a friend, or obtained from an unknown source may contain deadly fentanyl.” 

Teenagers and parents alike need to know about this rising danger, and take steps to prevent drug use and prevent overdose.

Types of Drugs Used by High School Students:

As noted above, different drugs will have different effects on users. For example, the short-term effects of marijuana include impaired memory and attention, and the long-term effects can lead to a drop in a person’s IQ. 

Beyond alcohol, marijuana is the most commonly used drug by high school students today, with about 31 percent of 12th graders reporting cannabis use in the past year. However, the CDC reports that high school students have used other drugs, too:

  • 15 percent of high school students reported having ever used the following illicit drugs: cocaine, inhalants, heroin, methamphetamines, hallucinogens, and/or ecstasy. 
  • 14 percent of students reported misusing prescription opioids. 

The above drugs can all lead to grave effects, including overdose, unprotected sexual behavior, experience of violence, mental health issues, and suicide risks. All drugs have risks, especially when used during adolescence.

At the end of the day, it’s safe to say that no drug is a safe drug for teenagers and high school students. No drug is truly safe, as they can lead to dangerous consequences like addiction. However, those younger than 25-years-old face the greatest risks. 

Schools have the potential to be a safe environment for teenagers, but they also can lead to early exposure of drugs and alcohol. If you believe your son, daughter, friend, or student is using drugs in high school, it is important to address the issue immediately. It is never too early to get help for a drug abuse problem, but it can be too late.

Turnbridge is a recognized treatment center specializing in adolescent substance use and mental health disorders. If you would like to speak with one of our counselors, or learn about our programs, please do not hesitate to contact us at 877-581-1793.