Link Between Underage Substance Use and Problems in Adulthood
Children and adolescents who use alcohol and drugs at an early are more likely to face problems with substance use as adults, according to a new SAMHSA Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS) Report.
Past studies have shown an association between consuming alcohol for the first time at an early age and misuse, abuse, or dependency later in life. Evidence now shows that early use of other substances – including marijuana, cocaine, and other psychostimulants and inhalants – pose similar long-term risks to the individual. These findings highlight the need to prevent and, importantly, delay drug initiation among adolescents and children for as long as possible. “Early to late adolescence is considered a critical risk period for the beginning of alcohol and drug use,” said SAMHSA Administrator Pamela S. Hyde. “Knowing the age a person starts the use of a substance can inform treatment facilities so that they can better provide timely and appropriate prevention and treatment programs.”
Adolescent years can be tumultuous. Teenagers' brains are still growing, and the instability of added emotional and physical changes means that they are particularly susceptible to risky behavior. Unfortunately, alcohol and drug use can seriously affect brain development, particularly in the realms of learning, memory, critical thinking, planning, impulse control, and regulating emotion. Many adolescents report feeling an intense pressure from their peer group to engage in drug use, leading them to unsafe behavior such as driving under the influence or engaging in risky sexual activity.
The SAMHSA Report found that 74 percent of adults participating in a substance abuse treatment program had initiated alcohol or drug use before the age of seventeen. Those who began at a very young age, 11 years old or younger, were more likely to have multiple substance dependencies when compared to those who waited until they were 25 years and older.
Though all adolescents are at risk, particular sensitivity and care should be taken with young people suffering from trauma. Many victims of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, for example, go on to develop substance abuse problems. At first, substance use may serve to help the individual cope with the emotional stress, but the depressive values of substances like alcohol can actually worsen depression. Progression from occasional usage to more serious abuse can be a slippery slope. In the long run, addressing the nature and impact of trauma can foster healing and growth, whereas using substances as a coping mechanism can lead to longer-term health issues.
SAMHSA recognizes the important role that parents play in prevention and intervention. The Talk. They Hear You." campaign works to reduce underage drinking among youth by providing parents and caregivers with information and many resources they need to start addressing the issue of alcohol with their children early. SAMHSA’s Too Smart To Start website also provides useful programs and strategies, downloadable materials, interactive games and exercises, and other resources to support youth, families, educators, and communities.
Substance use can interfere with health and academic performance and can negatively affect relationships with friends and family. Talking with young people early and often about the dangers of underage drinking and other substance usage can help. Youth need to understand and feel confident that they do not need to rely on illegal substances to fit in, have fun, or deal with the pressures of growing up.
Did you know?
SAMHSA manages several grant programs intended to prevent alcohol and drug use among youth. Among those are the Partnerships for Success grant program, which is designed to address two of the nation’s top substance abuse prevention priorities: underage drinking among persons aged 12 to 20 and prescription drug misuse and abuse among persons aged 12 to 25. In partnership with the Office of National Drug Control Policy, SAMHSA also manages the Drug Free Communities Support Program, which works to reduce substance use among youth.
- Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator
- SAMHSA News Release: Report Shows Combining Drug Use with Underage Drinking Raises Health Risks
- SAMHSA News: Mental Health Challenges Found among Older Teens and Adults
- SAMHSA’s “Talk. They Hear You.” Underage Drinking Prevention Campaign
- SAMHSA’s “Tips for Teens”
- SAMHSA’s “Too Smart To Start” Alcohol Use Prevention Website
- The CBHSQ Report: A Day in the Life of American Adolescents: Substance Use Facts Update
- Start the Talk about Underage Drinking
- The TEDS Report: Age of Substance Use Initiation among Treatment Admissions Aged 18 to 30