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Understanding the Risks of Adolescent Drug Use: Part II

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Likewise, if youth operate a car, motorcycle or other machinery when they're intoxicated, the risk of someone getting hurt skyrockets. The 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2009) randomly sampled high-school aged adolescents across the country from a diverse range of communities. In this anonymous written survey, students answered questions about a wide range of behaviors and habits. According to the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (CDC, 2009), 9.7% of high school students reported having driven a car after drinking alcohol, and 28.3% of these youth reported riding in a car with another teen who had been drinking alcohol. Nearly 2,000 youth die every year in car accidents after underage drinking, not to mention the youth who are seriously and permanently injured.

As mentioned, drug use also impairs the brains ability to regulate emotions. Thus, during drug use youth may experience powerful, intense emotions. The combination of poor emotional regulation and impaired impulse control can lead to violence, especially for people already struggling with social or emotional difficulties. In fact, over 1,600 youth die yearly from alcohol-related homicides, and approximately 300 youth die by suicide after using alcohol (CDC, 2009).

In addition to the above mentioned risks, drug use interferes with youth's normal physical, emotional, and social development, particularly for younger teens. This is because adolescents' bodies and brains are still developing well into their 20's and drug use affects the normal, healthy progression of this development. In fact, the younger a youth is when they start using these substances, the more damage they can do. For example, youth who use marijuana can experience short-term and long-term memory problems making it difficult for them to remember and recall information, and to process that information. Regular marijuana use also creates motivational deficits making it difficult for youth to put forth energy and effort into beneficial activities such as academics, sports, and social and recreational activities. Youth who repeatedly use alcohol or other drugs can also experience "hangovers" or the after-effects of substance use. These uncomfortable symptoms limit youth's ability to participate in daily activities like school, sports, or work.

Furthermore, the earlier youth begin experimenting or using these drugs, the more likely they will become addicted or dependent on these substances. Of adults who started drinking before age 15, around 40% report signs of alcohol dependence. That rate is four times higher than for adults who didn't drink until they were age 21 (USDHHS, 2007). This is especially concerning because 21% of high school youth report they had started drinking before age 13 (Eaton, Kann, Kinchen, et al., 2010). Because of the effect of alcohol and other drugs on the brain, and the immediate euphoria that results (feelings of joy, pleasure, excitement, and relaxation), it becomes very easy for youth to rely on these substances to have fun, to relieve stress, or to cope with daily life instead of learning to rely on healthier alternatives such as exercise, hobbies, or friendships. Because drugs interfere with the development of these positive coping skills for life's ordinary frustrations, youths' emotional, cognitive, and social development is delayed.

Once youth become physically or psychologically addicted to drugs, the addiction can prevent youth from living a healthy, happy life and achieving their goals. Drug and alcohol addiction can prevent youth from completing school, getting or maintaining a job, and maintaining relationships.