A potent mix of hormonal changes, growing independence, and still-developing brain structures make the teenage years particularly difficult.
Many adults look back on their teen years as a particularly challenging rite of passage, and today’s teens face even more pressures than their parents’ generation. With the advent of social media and cyberbullying, teens are exposed to more negative influences and peer pressure than ever. Adding experimentation with drugs and alcohol can have a strong impact on mood that sometimes results in suicide.
Prevalence of Drug and Alcohol Use Among Teens
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism tracks alcohol use among teens. The institute found that in 2009, more than 10 million American teenagers had consumed more than “just a few sips” of alcohol. In fact, 50% of 15-year-olds report that they have had at least one drink. The number continues to climb throughout the later teenage years.
Particularly worrisome is the fact that when teenagers do drink, they do so at higher levels than most adults. For example, the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 22% of high school students had five or more drinks within a single sitting during the past month. This level of binge drinking can severely affect mood and brain development. Drinking also leads to risky behaviors, with 8% of high schoolers reporting that they drove drunk and 24% stating that they rode with a driver who had been drinking.
For many teenagers, illicit drugs also hold an allure. In 2013, 7% of 8th graders reported that they had used marijuana in the past month. This percentage grows throughout the high school years, with 22.7% of high school seniors reporting recent marijuana use. Nearly 7% smoke marijuana every day.
Although use of cocaine or heroin remains fairly uncommon among high schoolers, many experiment with synthetic drugs, club drugs, and prescription medications. For example, 11.4% of high school seniors say they have used synthetic marijuana, with 15% using prescription drugs for non-medical purposes. All of these substances alter brain chemistry and affect decision making, increasing risk of suicide.
The Link Between Substance Use and Suicide
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among American teenagers, causing widespread pain throughout families and communities. Alcohol or drug abuse is one of the key risk factors for suicide in adolescents. These substances enter the brain and affect its reward pathway, leading to the “high” feeling that teenagers often seek. Over time, however, use of drugs and alcohol can dramatically change the chemistry of the brain. These brain changes place a person at greater risk of feeling intense sadness or depression.
Another link between substance abuse and suicide is physical dependency. Chronic drug or alcohol use — even with marijuana, which teenagers often believe is lower risk — can cause the body to physically crave the drug. This dependency frequently leads to feelings of helplessness or hopelessness. As the body comes down from a high, individuals often report feeling intense depression, irritability, or anxiety. All of these effects increase risk of suicide.
Additionally, access to drugs may provide a means for teenagers to commit suicide. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, nearly 10% of drug-related trips to the emergency room made by adolescents involved attempted suicide. In many of these cases, ready access to prescription drugs was a contributing factor.
Recognizing the Warning Signs for Teen Suicide
Although many parents worry about their teens, few have been educated about the warning sides for drug use and suicide. For obvious reasons, adolescents are often secretive about drug and alcohol use, and many parents remain oblivious. Other parents assume that “it’s just a phase” or that experimentation with substances is a normal part of adolescence. Unfortunately, this sometimes causes teenagers at greatest risk of substance abuse and suicide to slip through the cracks.
Not all teenagers exhibit the same warning signs when struggling with drug abuse, but many show:
- A sudden increase in secretiveness, particularly if the person was previously very forthcoming about details of her life
- Pulling away from friends and family
- Joining a new crowd of friends, particularly if these friends are known to engage in risky behaviors
- Declining grades in school
- Changes in attention to hygiene and physical appearance
- Dropping out of or losing interest in previously enjoyed extracurricular activities
Of course, some of these warning signs are also exhibited by teenagers who are being bullied at school, have changing interests, or simply are figuring out what they want out of their lives. A more serious cause for concern is co-occurring symptoms of depression, including:
- Persistent feelings of sadness or anxiety
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Dropping grades in school
- Feeling hopeless or desperate
- Feelings of guilt or shame
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Changes in appetite
- Difficulty making decisions
- Irritability or persistent anger
- Engaging in self-harm (e.g., cutting, burning the skin)
- Thoughts of suicide
Because teenagers’ brains are still developing, they often do not have the coping resources to deal effectively with pain and depression. Suicide may seem like an attractive option, and drug use may exacerbate the problem. It’s essential for adolescents in this situation to receive prompt, compassionate care in a professional treatment setting.
To learn more about alcohol and drug use, give us a call at 877-466-0620.