Increased Stress and Relation to Substance Abuse

graphic of a mans head filled with drugs

Increased Stress and Relation to Substance Use Among Youth

Steering Committee

December 01, 2023

As we continue to keep an eye on the state of mental health of our youth, one of the symptoms of increased stress and mental health challenges is the use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs to help ameliorate the effects of these difficulties. It is essential to recognize that substance use among young people can have serious consequences on their physical and mental health. Substance use and abuse can interfere with cognitive development, academic performance, and can lead to addiction issues later in life. While substance use rates had been steadily declining prior to the shutdown due to COVID-19 in 2020, the number of deaths due to overdoses in youth has been steadily climbing.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) conducts the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) annually. This survey gives us an opportunity to see trends in substance use and abuse from year to year. The NSDUH has been conducted by the federal government since 1971 and is a primary source of statistical information on substance use and mental health of the civilian, non-institutionalized population 12 years of age or older in the United States (US).

The NSDUH measures:

  • Use of illegal drugs, prescription drugs, alcohol, and tobacco
  • Substance use disorder and substance use treatment
  • Major depressive episodes, mental illness, and mental health care
  • Perceived recovery from substance use and mental health issues

Here are some of the things we learned from the 2022 NSDUH1:

  1. Of the U.S. population aged 12 years and older
    • Approximately 49% drank alcohol
    • 18% used tobacco products
    • 8% vaped nicotine o Approximately 17% used an illicit drug

  2. Adolescents aged 12-17
    • 7% used tobacco products or vaped nicotine
    • Of those, 73% used only vape nicotine products
    • 15% drank alcohol in the past month
      • Of those, 3% were binge drinkers
    • Approximately 9% had a Substance Use Disorder (SUD)
    • Approximately 20% had a past year major depressive episode (MDE)
      • Approximately 15% had a past year MDE with severe impairment
    • Adolescents with MDE were more likely to use illicit drugs
      • 26% with MDE used illicit drugs vs 12% without MDE

The percentages for all categories in the adolescent category show a slight increase from the past year, 2021, numbers. Unfortunately, due to methodological changes to the survey in 2021 it is difficult to compare the numbers to prior years.

This past year, Children Now, a nonpartisan, whole-child research, policy development, and advocacy organization, also conducted a survey of substance use by California (CA) youth. This survey found that the substances most often used by California’s youth are alcohol and marijuana.2 They also found that by 11th grade, nearly a quarter of CA youth are actively using alcohol and drugs. It is important to note that the earlier a person begins to use alcohol and other drugs the higher the likelihood of developing a SUD.

Some of the stressors that cause teens and young children to turn to alcohol and other drugs for comfort include:

  • Houselessness
  • Poverty
  • Systemic Inequities
  • Other mental health challenges and/or symptoms
  • Not feeling connected to their school community
  • Being members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ+) community

The report, along with countless other research across the nation, also showed that despite similar rates of drug use among different racial and socioeconomic groups, Black, brown, and poor youth are more likely to be targeted, arrested, and prosecuted for drug offenses that their white and higher income counterparts. The increased presence of police officers on school campuses has led to an increase of young people being arrested for drug related offenses. The criminalization of drug use and abuse has not helped lead young people to seek and receive treatment as needed. This particular report highlights the need to see substance use as an issue of health and wellbeing, rather than a moral failing and to increase education regarding decreasing the stigma that surrounds people who use and abuse substances in order to encourage individuals to seek help and treatment.

We have talked about some of the consequences of youth using substances, mostly focusing on the mental health aspects but the consequences can be wide-ranging and have significant impacts on various aspects of their lives. Here are some potential additional ways that substance use, and abuse can affect a young person’s life:

Physical Health Issues:

  • Substance use can lead to immediate and long-term health problems, including damage to the liver, heart, and lungs.
  • Increased risk of accidents and injuries due to impaired judgment and coordination while under the influence.
  • Academic and Cognitive Impairment:
  • Substance use can negatively impact academic performance, leading to poor grades and decreased educational attainment.
  • Impaired cognitive function, memory, and learning abilities.

Impact on Development:

  • Substance use during adolescence can interfere with normal brain development, potentially affecting decision-making and impulse control.

Social and Interpersonal Consequences:

  • Strained relationships with family and friends due to changes in behavior and priorities.
  • Increased likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors that can lead to legal issues.

Prevention efforts, education, and support systems are crucial in minimizing the risks associated with youth substance use. Open communication between parents, educators, and young individuals can play a key role in addressing these issues and promoting healthier choices. One such program is the “Talk. They Hear You.” public education campaign. This campaign, sponsored by SAMHSA, includes information caregivers and educators regarding how to talk to young people regarding alcohol and other drug use. The campaign includes handouts, posters, and social media campaigns that can be easily incorporated into the school setting.

We also need to talk about the current opioid epidemic and overdose crisis we are facing as a nation. In 2021, fentanyl deaths accounted for more than 80% of all drug-related deaths for youth in California. It does appear that efforts to mitigate fentanyl deaths are working as the number of deaths in CA dropped in 20226 but there is still much work to be done. The CA Department of Public Health (DPH) has information and resources available for schools to implement policies and education campaigns specifically related to this topic.

As always, the Desert Mountain Children’s Center and our staff are here to assist and partner with you to address the complex issue of substance use and abuse in youth. It is imperative that we collaborate to create equitable systems and environments that foster healthy choices and provide resources for those struggling with this issue. By cultivating a culture of understanding, empathy, and open communication, we can empower our youth to make informed decisions and ensure they are equipped with the tools they need to navigate the challenges of adolescence and emerge as healthy, thriving members of our community.



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