Why do Adolescents Use Drugs?

Drug use among adolescents and young adults is a key emerging problem in the United States today. Over the past century, an alarming surge in illicit drug use has been witnessed among the American youth and, essentially, drawing national attention to this existential scourge. Today, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) strives to address this challenge by providing unlimited access to evidence-based information on drug abuse prevalence among the youth, emerging drug-related challenges such as the opioid epidemic, and by providing an assortment of much-needed healthcare resources. 

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Alcohol, marijuana, stimulants, and hallucinogens are among the most common categories of drugs currently abused and misused by adolescents and emerging adults today. According to a survey conducted by the American Addiction Centers (2020), the United States has experienced a persistent upsurge in substance abuse incidences among adolescents and young adults; with statistics placing the current figure at 34.1 million young adults (ranging between 18 and 25 years of age). This is mostly worrying given the fact that a sizeable population of young adults starts abusing drugs at a comparatively younger age compared to antecedent generations. This is a major source of concern given that they are most impressionable at this age and are mostly susceptible to irreparable physical and psychosocial damage due to drug dependence. They may also fail to understand the short-term and long-term implications of their choices at present and serious consequences such as the health risks involved, the possibility of death due linked to drug overdose events, and the implications of physical and psychological dependence.

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An in-depth focus on the scope of drug abuse among adolescents and emerging adults is, therefore, necessary; in addition to conducting and thorough overview of its defining characteristics among this sociodemographic population. Furthermore, this discussion will also focus on the main reasons behind the current substance abuse prevalence among adolescents and young adults compared to other age groups and the most appropriate interventions available today, coupled with potential family implications.

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Scope of the Problem

            Illicit drug use, more so among adolescents and emerging adults, remains an ever-present healthcare challenge in the United States today.  To behavioral health experts such as Ronald Chervin, substance abuse is a serious public-health challenge given that users are typically oblivious of the burden drug use places upon them, their families, and the community as a whole.  Even more worrying is the influence of major emerging trends that have, seemingly, occasioned, an exponential increase in the use of new drug subtypes such as CNS stimulants, inhalants, dissociative anesthetics, opioids, behavior such as binge drinking, and a sudden shift towards the use of electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes).

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The American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S Preventive Service Task Force have continually been at the vanguard of this problem through various efforts geared towards evaluating the scope of substance abuse among the youth to put the problem into perspective. Among one of the most impactful surveys which initially brought the issue to national attention was a 2015 qualitative program dubbed the Youth Risk Behavior Survey whose results indicated that 10% of school-going adolescents were already indulging in illicit drugs at home and within the school campus (Czaderny, 2020).

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However, it is noteworthy to acknowledge that a common thread among cases involving school-going adolescent drug users is the abuse of alcohol, tobacco, e-cigarettes and vaping, marijuana, and hallucinogens such as Salvia divinorum and Psilocybin mushrooms. This current state has mostly been attributed to erroneous “low-risk perceptions” by adolescents and an overall increase in the non-medical consumption of prescription drugs such a prescription opioids and codeine cough syrup.  For instance, McGue & Hicks (2016) states that opioid-related hospitalizations of adolescents and young adults between 1997 to 2012 increases by 165% and portends an upsetting drug-related public-health reality confronting the United States in the coming decade.

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Characteristics and Comorbidities

            Several key factors distinguish drug use among adolescent and younger adults from its antecedents and other age-groups. Perhaps the most common among these is the fact that drug users in this demographic currently use drugs in an environment quite different from the ones their precursors were attuned to. The wide range of societal and technological changes experienced within the second half of the 20th century have had a major profound impact on drug use trends among the youth today. One such case in point was the shift from traditional cigarettes to e-cigarettes; which is mostly recognized as a key catalyst for a general increase in drug abuse incidences among the youth. Additionally, drug abuse among adolescents and the youth is also characterized by drug-dependence and frequent mood swings when unable to access their drug of choice. Users also develop strained interpersonal relationships with close family members and also find it difficult to keep friends. Their financial condition may also deteriorate given that considerable amount of their budget is allocated to drugs and often prioritized over other needs. This ultimately increases the overall likelihood of their involvement in illegal activities such as prostitution, inappropriate sexual behavior, extortion, and a myriad of street crimes. Moreover, sociodemographic differences are also evident in drug use patterns in the United States today. According to Wilson & Janoff (2016), the prevalence rate drug use among male adolescents is considerably higher compared to female users and closely tied to associated comorbidities. While male adolescents are most likely to use scheduled prescription-type illicit drugs, females are known to abuse non-medical options such as tranquilizers. Yet, the most common comorbidities associated with illicit drug use among adolescent males and females are untreated mental illnesses, environmental influences such as stress and trauma, and a wide array of genetic and epigenetic influences.

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Prevalence of Drug Use among Adolescents

Apart from its extant recognition as a global public health concern, drug use among the adolescents and young adults has physical and psychosocial consequences for users. Even with comprehensive knowledge of these facts, coupled with concerted drug-prevention efforts by agencies such as the Healthy People Consortium, drug use remains an existential problem for the youth and their advancement in contemporary society. This is more apparent in the ever-soaring prevalence of drug use disorders mostly attributed to early initiation into substance abuse.

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According to a recent survey by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), in 1 every 5 noninstitutionalized minors have used either a single or spectrum of illicit drugs within the past year, with the number expected to double two-fold within the coming decade (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2021). Among the population of adolescents and young adults in the United States, drug use of this type is commonly punctuated by the illicit use of alcohol, marijuana, and prescription painkillers. The current prevalence of drug use among individuals within this particular demographic has mostly been attributed to untreated mental health illnesses such as major depressive disorder (MDD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and mood disorders such as borderline personality disorder (BPD) and bipolar disorder (BD). This is further exacerbated by a limited access to professional to diagnose the specific mental health condition ailing the individual in question while kick-starting the treatment process (Santrock, 2013). Peer influence at home and within the school campus also plays a major role in influencing vulnerable populations such as individuals exposed to high levels of stress and trauma into drug use.

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Interventions and Family Implications   

            Early interventions are necessary for adolescents and young adults is necessary to inhibit the progression of unhealthy behaviors while avoiding cumulative effects associated with substance use disorders. Early intervention is also necessary in preventing the life-long physical and mental health problems associated with drug dependence today. The following are major evidence-based interventions currently recommended for adolescents and young adults and accompanying family implications. Today, schools at the very frontline of the fight against substance abuse in society, which is why school-based interventions are increasingly becoming popular. This has mostly been influenced by the increased prevalence of substance abuse and initiation, particularly among school-going adolescents across state. School-based interventions are, therefore, an effective deterrent against substance abuse among a vulnerable population. For instance, such efforts have been hailed for preventing the youth from indulging in illicit alcohol and tobacco use while significantly reducing incidences of smoking initiation (Donovan, 2015). However, it is crucial to also consider the family implication for the school-based intervention program. Families are commonly expected to enroll students into programs of this type while also actively participating in follow-up interventions to build their social competence. Moreover, the community has long remained one of the most effective tools in combating emerging problems such as drug abuse in society through community-based drug prevention programs.

Today, community-based drug prevention programs essentially function as a conduit for positive character influence on at-risk populations such as the youth. Such programs also seek to identify adults guilty of initiating vulnerable persons into drug use and proceeding to report them to the relevant authorities.  Hoffmann (2017) also asserts that community-based drug prevention programs also have major family implications, during and after implementation. Among the most common impacts is its ability to streamline family functioning among vulnerable individuals, especially through respected community leaders.

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