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The drug and alcohol epidemic in teens & young adults in the United States has reached an all-time high, with more people using prescription opioids than tobacco and more people with substance abuse disorders than people with cancer. In 2016 the Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released a landmark report asking Americans to face up to our addiction epidemic and to the misuse and abuse of chemical substances. His report showed that substance abuse disorders cost the U.S. more than $420 billion a year. Dr. Vivek called for a cultural shift in the way Americans talk about the issue, and recommended the actions we can all take collectively to prevent and treat addiction and promote recovery.
The surgeon general also shed some light on a common solution for these problems, and it starts with our youth: our teens and young adults. “Preventing or even simply delaying young people from trying substances is important to reducing the likelihood of a use disorder later in life.” He placed an emphasis on the importance of preventing and addressing substance use early on in adolescence, because teens who use alcohol before the age of 15 are four times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder later in life, compared to those who drink at age 21 or older.
Did you know that an estimated 20.8 million people in our country are living with a substance use disorder? This is a staggering number: it’s 1.5 times the number of people who have all cancers…combined. It is a calculation that does not include the millions of people who are currently misusing substances but may not yet have a “full-fledged disorder.”
Even though the reasons for the high prevalence of prescription drug misuse and addictions vary due to many factors, one of the major factors is ease of access. In fact, the number of prescriptions for some medications has increased dramatically since the early 1990s and sadly the misinformation about the addictive properties of prescription opioids and the perception that prescription drugs are “less harmful than illicit drugs” are likely contributors to the problem.
The biggest crime is the access our youth (teens and young adults), have had to medications. Studies show that teens and young adults who misuse prescription medications are more likely to report use of other drugs. There are direct associations between prescription drug misuse and higher rates of cigarette smoking, heavy and episodic drinking, and the use of marijuana, cocaine, heroine and other illicit drug use among young people under the age of 21.
One of The National Institute of Drug and Alcohol (NIDA)’s surveys of substance use and attitudes in our youth found that high number on teenage students reported nonmedical use of the prescription stimulant Adderall and the opioid pain reliever Vicodin. It seems that after alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco, prescription drugs (taken non-medically) are among the most commonly used drugs by teens. When asked how they obtained prescription stimulants for nonmedical use, more than half of the teens and young adults surveyed said they either bought or received the drugs from a friend or relative.
For far too long people have thought about addiction and substance abuse disorders as a disease of choice, a moral character flaw or failing. It’s time to blow the lid on these stultified perceptions because we now fully understand that these disorders actually change the circuitry in our brains. They affect our ability to make decisions, change our reward system and alter our stress response. That tells us that addiction is a chronic disease of the brain, and that we need to treat it with the same urgency we do any other illness. In the past we may have underestimated how exposure to addictive substances can lead to full blown addiction but this is no longer the case.
Many teens turn to alcohol, marijuana or other substances as a means of coping with stress, relating to their peers, and rebelling against authority. Drinking or smoking are common starting places because to young people it may seem both cool and also excitingly risky because it’s forbidden.
Unfortunately, as the Surgeon General report states, those people who begin drinking before age 15 are 4 times more likely to develop an alcohol addiction than those who wait until they are over 20. Teens who start using drugs at such an early age are more likely to have substance abuse problems and addictions later in life.
One of the main reasons teens and young adults are more susceptible to addiction is their brains are still developing and will be growing and changing well into their mid-twenties. While in some ways the teenage brain is as smart as that of an adult over age 25, the ability to fully conceptualize long-term consequences, which happens with significant late growth in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, is still a work in progress.
The addiction epidemic is real. The upshot is the US has a critical opportunity to accelerate significant and lasting change in the way substance use disorders and addictions are perceived and managed. The important call to action is for the government and elected officials in the current administration to do the following:
There are prevention strategies, and for teens and young adults already enmeshed in addiction treatment strategies, that can address substance use disorders. Some programs are school-based, college-campus-based, or community-based, some are online and some are in person. Many programs teach our youth how to manage stress in a healthy way, because stress is one of the main reasons kids turn to substances like alcohol, illicit drugs and prescription painkillers. The key is to implement many of these evidence-based interventions.
While I’m calling attention to some pretty stark statistics here, I also want to recognize there are reasons to be hopeful. All across the US we have examples of communities stepping up and implementing prevention programs and treatment programs. And the good news: those programs are changing the lives of young people. We’ve been dealing with substance disorders for centuries. The only difference now is that we have solutions that work. Teens and young adults who struggle with drug and alcohol addiction or dependence do not have to suffer alone. There are several treatment options available, many of which are designed exclusively for teens and the unique challenges they face.
If you suspect you or a loved one is becoming dependent on any drugs, or alcohol, the sooner one stars treatment the more likely it is to succeed. If you would like more information on treatment options and support groups please contact us: