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Addiction and Substance Misuse in Youth

Updated: Aug 6, 2021

By J’haria Dallas, CEI Intern

Parents, educators, and mentors alike are teaching children to positively cope with negative emotions in a healthy way; unfortunately, many teens still turn to substances to numb their feelings rather than using mindfulness, community, and other strategies to address their pain.

Adolescent substance misuse is an ongoing problem both in the United States and internationally. Substance abuse is categorized as “… smoking, drinking, misusing prescription drugs and using illegal drugs” (Center on Addiction, 2017). Those who begin using drugs and alcohol before the age of eighteen have a greater rate of becoming addicted to these substances in adulthood, potentially creating emotional and financial burdens on families and the larger society (Center on Addiction, 2017). COVID-19 has introduced new challenges to living with Substance Use Disorder (SUD) and Opioid Use Disorder (OUD), especially because evidence shows that the diminished lung capacity and constriction of blood vessels that occur with regular use of certain substances, such as opioids and methamphetamines, may put those who use these substances at higher risk of contracting the virus and/or experiencing a more severe reaction (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2020).

Substance Misuse Affects the Lives of Many Teens

In 2011, The Center on Addiction ran a study of 1,000 high school students and their parents and 500 school personnel along with a review of publications and analyses of national data sets. The results showed that three-quarters of the students had used an addictive substance and that during the time of the study almost half of the students were currently using an addictive substance. A little over twelve percent of the students met criteria to be considered addicted to a substance (Center on Addiction, 2017).

Adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse; neglect; growing up with household members dealing with substance misuse, mental illness and/or criminality, place a teen more at risk to initiate drug use (Chakravarthy, Lotfipour, & Shah, 2013). While it is still difficult to understand the substance use trends during the pandemic, public health officials do worry about the effects of parents struggling with SUD and OUD being quarantined in homes with their children for extended periods of time. Many substance misuse treatment centers have been allowed to make exceptions for the essential methadone prescriptions usually only given in daily doses to those in recovery from OUD to be given in 28-day supplies during the coronavirus pandemic. The hope is that those in the early stages of recovery are able to maintain their sobriety; however, it remains to be seen whether those month-long supplies were used responsibly (Slat, Thomas, & Lagisetty, 2020). Illegal drugs have become harder and more expensive to procure, but it is unclear at this point whether that has led to a drastic reduction in use or resulted in those struggling with addiction putting themselves at greater risk to obtain substances (Partnership for Drug Free Kids, 2020).

The Importance of Intervening Early

For youth dealing with substance misuse, it’s important to intervene early to promote a successful recovery process and transition more easily into a productive lifestyle. The earlier adolescents begin misusing substances, the more likely they are to become a heavy drug user as they get older. Early substance misuse gives youth the fearlessness to try new drugs and drug combinations which can result in intentional and accidental fatalities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, youth may be more likely to experiment with more dangerous substances because one they are familiar with is not available.

In 2018, researchers conducted the Brain and Alcohol Research in College Students (BARCS) study which showed a great decline in gray matter volume in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus in those who reported using substances, resulting in potential executive function and memory difficulties. According to The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes, “…drug and alcohol fatalities are one of the leading preventable causes of death for the 15 to 24-year-old population” (Chakravarthy, Lotfipour, & Shah,2013). The millions of youth fatalities related to substance misuse could be reduced by community education on cognitive development in the teen years, illicit drug use popular among youth, and the importance of building healthy relationships. Community members should also be aware of warning signs, such as (Center on Addiction, 2017):

  1. Extreme and sudden differences in behavior

  2. Frequent injuries

  3. The smell of alcohol or smoke

  4. Loss of interest in activities

Schools can work with health care providers to train staff on how to use substance misuse screenings for at-risk teens. Early intervention is especially important, because drug use can negatively affect the development of the teen brain. This, in turn, affects how the adolescent responds in the classroom and can result in delinquent behavior as they get older.

Combatting the Substance Misuse Problem

Teens dealing with substance misuse may experience a decline in their academic performance, involvement in the juvenile judicial system, a lack of healthy relationships, and health issues (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1998). Schools, parents, and community organizations can reduce the number of families affected by substance misuse by educating youth about the consequences of misusing drugs and alcohol and forming positive relationships. Rather than merely instructing teens not to use substances, which might pique the curiosity of teens prone to testing authority, youth need to be directly taught about the physical, behavioral, and relational consequences of substance addiction.

When teens are living with substance addiction, it’s essential to get them help as soon as possible. There are various hotlines that can be called to find assistance in your area and to get help in the next steps to recovery if you or someone you know is dealing with substance misuse in adolescence or adulthood. There are also apps and text services such as Gobi, an online intervention program that uses assignments, supportive text messages, and parent-child interaction support during this difficult time.

To best support teens struggling with substance misuse, educators and the greater school community can focus on creating a positive, compassionate school culture that encourages a sense of belonging, relationship-building, and healthy responses to stress, anxiety, and depression. When the community is aware of the risk factors and symptoms of substance of misuse, teens have more support systems to intervene.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019, April). Teen substance use & risks. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Center on Addiction (2017, April 14). Adolescent substance use: America’s #1 public health problem. Center on Addiction website.

Center on Addiction (2017, April 14). Prevention in teens. Center on Addiction website.

Chakravarthy, B., Shah, S., & Lotfipour, S. (2013). Adolescent drug abuse: Awareness & prevention. The Indian Journal of Medical Research, 137(6), 1021–1023.

Dryden-Edwards, R., & Sheil, WC (2016). Teen drug abuse: Get the facts and statistics. MedecineNet.

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (1998). Consequences of youth substance abuse. U.S. Department of Justice.

National Institute on Drug Abuse (2020, April 6). FAQs on COVID-19 and addiction/Substance Use Disorder.

Partnership for Drug Free Kids. (2020, May 7). Illegal drugs more expensive and harder to obtain due to COVID-19.

Slat, S., Thomas, J., & Lagisetty, P. (2020). Coronavirus disease 2019 and opioid use—A pandemic within an epidemic. JAMA Network.

Whyte AJ, Torregrossa MM, Barker JM, & Gourley SL (2018, May 3). Editorial: Long-Term Consequences of Adolescent Drug Use: Evidence From Pre-clinical and Clinical Models. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

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