Contrary to popular belief, the lifetime misuse of illicit drugs among American teens has gone down since peaking in the mid-1990s. However, it remains a major cause of concern, as data from 2019 shows about 34.8% of Americans in the 8th, 10th, and 12th grade reporting the use of an illicit drug in their lifetime.
Even school closures in 2020 have done little to stop teen drug use. Boston Drug Treatment Centers, a directory of drug rehabilitation centers and support groups in Massachusetts, reports that inquiries for teen rehab programs remained steady even through the COVID pandemic.
New threats have also recently emerged, including a rise in prescription drug misuse in teens as well as highly-concentrated cannabis products that have a may interfere with adolescent brain development. And despite a drop in underage drinking, numbers for alcohol abuse are still high in the United States compared to other Western countries.
Unfortunately, teens are especially vulnerable to substance use disorders (SUDs) for several reasons. Here’s why recovering from drug or alcohol misuse is especially difficult for adolescents.
1.) They grapple with other big problems
Adults always seem to forget that being a teenager is not easy. Most face enormous pressure to fit in, excel in school, and find maintain their desired place in the social hierarchy. Quite often, they are often forced to think of the future when they can barely understand the present. Teens recovering from drugs often find that adults have unrealistic expectations of them, which sometimes leads to a deterioration in relationships and increases the risk of a relapse.
2.) Teens face stronger peer pressure
While adults tend to have a good sense of their individual identity, most teens are still exploring who they really are, which means their identity is more tied to a group. This makes most teens particularly vulnerable to peer pressure during the recovery process. Because of this, outpatient rehab is not recommended in many cases because teens may remain in contact with friends who may coerce or influence them to continue taking drugs.
3.) Their stakes are higher
While SUDs can affect anyone at any age, they can be extremely dangerous for adolescents, as their brains have not yet fully developed. This means they are especially vulnerable to any changes caused by drug or alcohol use. Having an SUD at an early age can potentially disrupt or even halt brain development, which can leave someone with impaired judgment, a shortened attention span, and stunted emotional control for the rest of their lives.
4.) Not all rehab programs are suited for teenagers
Teens are especially vulnerable to feeling isolated when they’re away from their peers. This may become even worse when they are committed to a program where no one seems to understand what they are going through. This isolation may ultimately lead to a relapse and a failure of the recovery process.
While there have been improvements in this regard, rehab programs that are specifically designed for teens are far fewer than conventional programs, which are by and large meant for adults.
5.) Many teens have undiagnosed mental health issues
Teens are significantly more likely to experience depression and anxiety than adults. While teen problems might seem trivial to an adult looking in, from their perspective, these issues are anything but.
Neuroscience and psychiatry are only starting to get a handle on how malleable teens’ brains are. Traumas that happen during this time or earlier in childhood are more likely to have a profound effect compared to traumas that happen later on. As adolescent brains aren’t fully mature, their executive functions are still underdeveloped, which usually makes them less able to handle the stress.
This all makes teens prone to making irrational decisions, including falling in with the wrong crowd, underage drinking, or indulging in illicit drugs. Unfortunately, adding a substance use disorder on top of“normal” teenage angst can easily evolve into something a lot more serious.
Teens with substance use disorders face challenges that parents and clinicians don’t always consider. Given their brains’ vulnerability to drugs and alcohol, parents of teens with substance misuse issues need to find treatment programs specifically tailored for adolescents. The extra time spent looking for an appropriate rehab program for teens is worth it because of the better understanding of the issues teens face, which often translates into fewer relapses and higher rates of recovery.