Among the most important of the many problematic behaviors contributing to the rise of teen suicide is drug and alcohol abuse. Research indicates a fairly close connection between the two. And that’s not all. Studies also show that in 30 to 50 percent of teen suicide cases, substance abuse is actually a part of the event itself; a large number of teens who take their own lives do so not only while they’re intoxicated but because they’re intoxicated. Intoxicating substances tend to worsen any mental or emotional problems an adolescent may already have. At the same time, they remove any inhibitions that may keep a teen from carrying out his desperate plan. No wonder the result is often tragic.
Defining Our Terms
Substance abuse has become so prevalent in our culture that we as parents need to keep an eye out for it as early as the elementary grades. It helps to know exactly what we’re talking about before tackling the challenge, so here’s a list of some of the key terms.
Substance use disorder (SUD) or alcohol use disorder (AUD). This is the current term clinicians use to refer to drug addiction and alcoholism. It’s a reminder that substance abuse is a serious yet treatable medical and a mental health problem.
Abuse. Alcohol abuse is a pattern of drinking that leads to dysfunction and impairs people’s ability to fulfill their responsibilities. Drug abuse includes the use of any kind of street drug at any time as well as the use of prescription drugs without the authorization of a qualified physician.
Dependence. Physiological changes in the brain produce a heightened tolerance to the effects of the abused substance. As a result, users develop a need to ingest it in increasingly larger amounts. This causes them to become psychologically dependent upon it.
Addiction. Addiction includes both mental and physical dependence. Addicts can’t function effectively without their drug of choice. When deprived of it for too long, they develop physical withdrawal symptoms and may even die as a result.
Facts and Statistics
According to a U.S. Surgeon General’s Report, more than twenty million Americans aged twelve or older suffered from an addiction in 2015.1 That number included millions of teens and young adults. Studies have shown that 40 percent of twelfth-graders, 30 percent of tenth-graders, and 13 percent of eighth-graders have used a drug in the past year.
Three addictive substances top the list of drugs favored by young abusers: alcohol, marijuana, and opioids.
Teens and young adults misuse alcohol more than any other substance. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), an estimated 623,000 adolescents between the ages of twelve and seventeen (2.5 percent of this age group) had alcohol use disorder.
The marijuana currently on the market is far more potent than the pot of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. Today’s marijuana is at least ten times more potent and damaging to the brain than the strains that were common thirty or forty years ago. It’s also far easier to obtain than it used to be.
Opioids and prescription painkillers may be the most dangerous and widely available of all the addictive substances currently used by teens and young adults. In many cases they’re more easily accessible than liquor or street drugs because they can often be found in the medicine cabinet at home. We’ll talk more about this crisis when we discuss the topic of “pharming.”
Effects and Consequences
Drug and alcohol abuse is more far more dangerous than kids realize. It can be both a symptom and a cause of suicidal thinking. Different people react to intoxicating substances in different ways. Some may take years to develop an addiction. In other cases, one exposure may be enough to push a user over the edge. Suicide is one of many possible results. There’s also a strong connection between substance abuse disorder and mental illness. A number of studies found that about half of those who experience one will also have problems with the other at some point in their lives.
Some drugs cause the brain to release chemicals that play a role in creating pleasurable sensations (for example, dopamine and serotonin). Other drugs block the brain from receiving certain signals, such as pain. Drugs also affect the brain’s neurotransmitters and can have serious negative effects in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for planning, decision-making, self-expression, and controlling social behavior.
These effects are stronger and more problematic for teenagers because the adolescent brain is not yet fully developed. A teen’s brain
continues to be easily molded and susceptible to change until sometime in the mid-twenties. As a result, early abuse of drugs and/or alcohol can put a permanent pause on a teenager’s brain development, causing the abuser to remain a mental adolescent for the rest of her life.
The Truth about “Pharming”
A particularly disturbing development in the realm of youthful drug abuse is a phenomenon known as pharming. The term refers to the unauthorized use of pharmaceutical and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs for the purpose of getting high.
At pharming parties (also known as “Skittles parties”), kids bring whatever drugs they can get their hands on—often by raiding the family medicine cabinet—and throw them into a communal bowl. After that, everyone takes turns downing pills by the handful, often with the aid of an alcoholic chaser. It’s a type of prescription roulette, and it can have all kinds of frightening results, including stroke, heart attack, brain damage, delirium, and death.
What makes this trend all the more alarming is that one in four parents actually believe that prescription and OTC medications are safer to misuse than street drugs.2 The truth is that pharming is more than just a perilous prelude to suicidal thoughts—it’s a potentially fatal activity in and of itself.
Discerning the Signs
How can you tell if your child might have a problem with drug or alcohol abuse? There are a number of signs to watch for, including
- social withdrawal and loss of interest in favorite activities,
- a change in friends,
- sudden downward trend in academic performance,
- health issues and constant illnesses,
- changes in appearance and hygiene,
- lying or secretiveness,
- financial problems, asking for money, or stealing,
- the presence of drug-related paraphernalia or other physical evidences of drug use (white powder, pills, or other unusual materials) among your teen’s belongings,
- suspicious, troublesome, or reckless behavior (including drinking and driving and promiscuous sex),
- memory blackouts,
- physical symptoms associated with withdrawal from alcohol or drug use (for example: trouble sleeping, depression, shakiness, tremors, restlessness, irritability, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, sweating, racing heartbeat, difficulty concentrating, or seizure).
Try to stay aware of any factors that could make your child more susceptible to experimenting with alcohol or drugs, such as heredity, mental disorders, and certain combinations of personality characteristics (for example, recklessness, lack of inhibition, or creativity).
Mounting a Strong Defense
Drug abuse is so widespread in our culture that we can’t expect to isolate our kids from exposure to it. But we can take steps to reduce the risks. Here are a few ideas:
Model good behavior. Remember that if you drink or smoke, your kids are likely to follow your example. Be aware of the contents of your medicine cabinet and take a close look at any unexamined tendencies you may have to medicate your emotions with legitimate drugs.
Build drug-resistant attitudes in your kids. You can do this by
- creating an environment that balances love (nurture) and limits (structure),
- expressing strong disapproval of drug and alcohol use,
- instilling respect and awe for the God-given gift of a healthy body and mind,
- helping your children become students of consequences,
- building a positive sense of identity within your family,
- encouraging church-related activities that build a meaningful personal faith.
Talk with your kids about drug abuse. Keep the lines of communication open. Pay a weekend visit to a local emergency room for a close-up look at the results of teen drug abuse. Offer thoughtful and constructive commentary when you and your child see someone smoking pot or drinking.
Seek out trustworthy adult mentors. Get to know your child’s teachers, coaches, and the parents of his friends. Encourage him to form strong connections with healthy role models.
Create consequences for unacceptable behavior. A heart-to-heart conversation might be sufficient for a first-time drug- or alcohol-related offense. If warnings go unheeded, you will need to move on to substantial consequences, such as loss of driving, dating, or phone privileges.
Be realistic. If a problem arises, face it squarely. Then get on with the task of helping your child. There’s nothing to be gained by wallowing in guilt.
If you find your teen is already abusing drugs or alcohol, it’s a good idea to get professional counseling as a family. The most successful treatment programs take a family systems approach that involves intensive evaluation and a series of counseling sessions offered in an environment of community and accountability.
Clearly, we can’t be too vigilant in this area. If you have reasons to believe that your teen may be abusing drugs or alcohol—or if you suspect that she may be moving in that direction—it’s time to “parent up!”
Don’t be afraid to confront the situation positively and decisively. Without blaming or shaming, ask your teen directly if she’s ever been tempted to engage in substance abuse. If she says yes, take the bull by the horns. Make up your mind to be a source of unconditional love, compassion, and support. The life you save could be your own child’s.
- “Highlights of The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health: At-a-Glance,” https://addiction.surgeon general.gov/sites/default/files/report-highlights.pdf (accessed August 15, 2018).
- Mary Laughlin, “‘Pharming’ Endangers Teens,” The Journal of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, June 2008; 101 (6-7):164.