In the United States, the vast majority of people start drinking alcohol before reaching the legal drinking age. Specifically, over three-quarters of Americans report consuming alcohol before age 21, and 60 percent started drinking while still a minor, in adolescence. Frequently, illicit drug use also starts during the teenage years. For example, most Americans start smoking marijuana between 12 and 16 years old.
The problem is, substance abuse in adolescence can cause detrimental effects in one’s adulthood. Teenagers are in a state of critical brain development – and introducing drugs and alcohol during this period can inhibit the development of executive function. This, in turn, can cause long-term effects on teens’ health and well-being. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), substance use during adolescence can lead to:
- Disruption in the growth and development of teens, especially in their brain development.
- Other risky behaviors, such as unprotected sex and dangerous driving, which can lead to long-term problems.
- The development of adult health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and sleep disorders.
Additionally, studies have shown that early substance abuse can also trigger long-term drug problems and addictive disorders. About three-quarters of 18- to 30-year-olds admitted to addiction treatment programs began using substances during their teenage years.
Now, a new study has found that those who develop substance use disorders (SUDs) during adolescence are at an increased risk for continued issues in adulthood. In the NIH-funded study, published in JAMA Network Open, it was found that the majority (60%) of adults who showed symptoms of a “severe” substance use disorder in their teen years continued to exhibit two or more symptoms in adulthood. A severe substance use disorder is defined as showing six or more symptoms, including (but not limited to) a failure to fulfill major obligations due to substance use, as well as repeating substance use even when dangerous to health.
These individuals were also more likely, as adults, to abuse prescription drugs, as well as self-medicate with opioids, sedatives, or tranquillizers.
By comparison, the percentage of symptomatic adults reduced slightly with lessened severity of substance addiction during adolescence. 54% of those who reported only two to three symptoms of a substance use disorder in adolescence – a “mild” SUD – experienced some symptoms in adulthood.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) writes: “While use of alcohol, cannabis, or other drugs is common among adolescents, previous studies have suggested that most teens reduce or cease drug use as they enter adulthood. However, this study indicates that adolescents with multiple symptoms of substance use disorder – indicating higher severity – do not transition out of symptomatic substance use.”
It’s important to note that substance addiction is a highly treatable and manageable condition. Those who are facing symptoms of a substance use disorder – particularly during adolescence – can recover with active and ongoing management. With this comes a commitment to abstinence and continued care, such as attending meetings or support groups.
However, there is currently no cure for substance use disorders. Substance use disorders are chronic disorders of the brain and therefore cause long-term (and potentially life-long) changes. The new data highlighted above underlines the importance of proper education about addiction as a disease, and proper management of this condition throughout one’s recovery.
Dr. Sean Esteban McCabe, senior author of this study, explains, “Our study shows us that severity matters when it comes to predicting risk decades later, and it’s crucial to educate and ensure that our messaging to teens with the most severe forms of substance use disorder is one that’s realistic. We want to minimize shame and sense of failure for these individuals.”
“Teens with substance use disorder will not necessarily mature out of their disorders, and it may be harmful to tell those with severe symptoms that they will,” McCabe states.
Those battling addiction, especially at an early age, should not be discouraged by this statement, but rather feel equipped to move forward. Addiction is a chronic and relapsing disease, but paying attention to the signs of addiction and knowing when to seek help in recovery is essential. Those who understand this dynamic can prepare for the future by establishing a support network of sober friends, mentors, and clinicians who can help them through any difficult times that arise. They can also create a relapse prevention plan.
For long-term health and well-being, a commitment to recovery – and active engagement in the recovery process – is necessary. Much like diabetes or other chronic diseases, substance use disorders can be managed when you actively monitor and tend to symptoms that arise. Knowing how to prevent relapse, cope with stressors, and avoid relapse stressors are key to one’s success.
As stated by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “For many people, recovery — including meaningful roles in social life, school and work — is possible, especially when you start treatment early and play a strong role in your own recovery process.”
Early Intervention Can Make a World of Difference
If you are a parent, clinician, or concerned loved one, you may be wondering what can be done to prevent severe substance use disorders in our youth. With so many adolescents experimenting with drugs and becoming reliant on them, it is critical for us to have open conversations and act on any signs of a substance use problem in our teens.
The Director of the NIDA, Nora Volkow, M.D., explains, “Screening adolescents for drug use is extremely important for early intervention and prevention of the development of substance use disorder. This is critical especially as the transition from adolescence to adulthood, when brain development is still in progress, appears to be a period of high risk for drug use initiation.”
Dr. Volkow further discusses how early intervention can help prevent the transition from occasional or recreational drug use to addiction in adolescents and young adults. This is an active area of focus and research under the National Institutes of Health Helping to End Addiction Long-term Initiative.
Adolescence is a critical period of brain development, with heightened vulnerability to substance use and substance use disorders. This is because the frontal cortex – which is responsible for many functions related to decision-making, impulse control, and memory – is not yet matured. Introducing substances at this age can impact and stunt the development of these functions.
Additionally, a hallmark of adolescence is risk-taking and experimentation, which for most young people, often involves trying alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs. This puts them at greater risk of consequences down the line.
As the Surgeon General puts it, “The earlier the exposure, the greater the risk.”
This means that early intervention is also essential. The National Institute on Drug Abuse states, “When substance use disorders are identified and treated in adolescence—especially if they are mild or moderate—they frequently give way to abstinence from drugs with no further problems.”
If someone you know – your son, daughter, student, patient – is showing signs of drug use in their teenage years, intervening now can make a world of difference long-term. You can make a difference by asking questions, establishing an open conversation, and seeking proper help for their needs. Adolescent drug rehab is often the first step to recovery, followed by continuing care and recovery support.
If you are interested in addiction treatment services for your adolescent, know that Turnbridge is only one call away. Turnbridge is a recognized treatment facility for teenagers and young adults struggling with mental health and substance abuse disorders. You can call 877-581-1793 to learn more, or explore our adolescent treatment programs online here.