Substance Abuse/Chemical Dependence in Adolescents

What is substance abuse/chemical dependence?

There are three different terms used to define substance-related disorders, including the following:

  • Substance abuse. Substance abuse describes a pattern of substance (drug) use leading to significant problems or distress such as failure to attend school, substance use in dangerous situations (driving a car), substance-related legal problems, or continued substance use that interferes with friendships and/or family relationships. Substance abuse, as a disorder, refers to the abuse of illegal substances or the abusive use of legal substances. Alcohol is the most common legal drug of abuse. People can often stop substance abuse on their own or with a little help when they realize it is interfering with their life. 

  • Substance dependence. Substance dependence describes continued substance abuse, even after significant problems in everyday functioning have developed. Signs include an increased tolerance or need for increased amounts of a substance to attain the desired effect, withdrawal symptoms with decreased use, unsuccessful efforts to decrease use, increased time spent in activities to obtain substances, withdrawal from social and recreational activities, and continued use of a substance even with awareness of physical or psychological problems encountered by the extent of the substance use. People often need professional help when they develop substance dependence. 

  • Chemical dependence. Chemical dependence is another term used to describe the compulsive use of chemicals (drugs or alcohol) and the inability to stop using them despite all the problems caused by their use.

What substances are most often abused by adolescents?

Substances frequently abused by adolescents include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Alcohol

  • Marijuana

  • Tobacco

  • Prescription drugs 

  • Hallucinogens

  • Cocaine

  • Amphetamines

  • Opiates

  • Anabolic steroids

  • Inhalants

  • Methamphetamine

What causes substance abuse/chemical dependence?

Cultural and societal norms influence acceptable standards of substance use. Public laws determine the legality of the use of substances. Substance-related disorders in adolescence are caused by multiple factors including genetic vulnerability, environmental stressors, social pressures, individual personality characteristics, and psychiatric problems. However, determining which of these factors are most to blame in adolescent populations has not been determined.

Who is affected by substance abuse/chemical dependence?

Parental and peer substance use are two of the more common factors contributing to youthful decisions regarding substance use.

Some adolescents are more at risk of developing substance-related disorders, including adolescents with one or more of the following conditions present:

  • Children of substance abusers

  • Adolescents who are victims of physical, sexual, or psychological abuse

  • Adolescents with mental health problems, especially depressed and suicidal teens

  • Physically disabled adolescents

What are the symptoms of substance abuse/chemical dependence?

The following behaviors may indicate an adolescent is having a problem with substance abuse. However, each adolescent may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Getting high on drugs or getting intoxicated (drunk) on a regular basis

  • Lying, especially about if and how much they are using or drinking

  • Avoiding friends and family members

  • Giving up activities they used to enjoy such as sports or spending time with nonusing friends

  • Talking a lot about using drugs or alcohol

  • Believing they need to use or drink in order to have fun

  • Pressuring others to use or drink

  • Getting in trouble at school or with the law

  • Taking risks, such as sexual risks or driving under the influence of a substance

  • Suspension from school for a substance-related incident

  • Missing school due to substance use and/or declining grades 

  • Depressed, hopeless, or suicidal feelings

The symptoms of substance abuse may resemble other medical problems or psychiatric conditions. Always consult your adolescent's doctor for a diagnosis.

How is substance abuse/chemical dependence diagnosed?

A pediatrician, family doctor, psychiatrist, or qualified mental health professional usually diagnoses substance abuse in adolescents. However, adolescent substance abuse is believed by some to be the most commonly missed pediatric diagnosis. Adolescents who use drugs are most likely to visit a doctor's office with no obvious physical findings. Substance abuse problems are more likely to be discovered by doctors when adolescents are injured in accidents occurring while under the influence, or when they are brought for medical services because of intentional efforts to hurt themselves. Clinical findings often depend on the substance abused, the frequency of use, and the length of time since last used, and may include the following:

  • Weight loss

  • Constant fatigue

  • Red eyes

  • Little concern for hygiene

Treatment for substance abuse/chemical dependence

Specific treatment for substance abuse/chemical dependence will be determined by your adolescent's doctor based on:

  • Your adolescent's age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of your adolescent's symptoms

  • Extent of your adolescent's dependence

  • The substance abused

  • Your adolescent's tolerance for specific medications or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the condition

  • Your opinion or preference

A variety of treatment programs for substance abuse are available on an inpatient or outpatient basis. Programs considered are usually based on the type of substance abused. Medical detoxification (if needed, based on the substance abused) and long-term follow-up management are important features of successful treatment. Long-term, follow-up management usually includes formalized group meetings and age-appropriate psychosocial support systems, as well as continued medical supervision. Individual and family psychotherapy are often recommended to address the developmental, psychosocial, and family issues that may have contributed to and resulted from the development of a substance abuse disorder.

Prevention of substance abuse/chemical dependence

There are three major approaches used to prevent adolescent substance use and abuse, including the following:

  • School-based prevention programs. School-based prevention programs usually provide drug and alcohol education and interpersonal and behavior skills training.

  • Community-based prevention programs. Community-based prevention programs usually involve the media and are aimed for parents and community groups. Programs, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD), are the most well-known, community-based programs.

  • Family-focused prevention programs. Family-focused prevention programs involve parent training, family skills training, adolescent social skills training, and family self-help groups. Research literature available suggests that components of family-focused prevention programs have decreased the use of alcohol and drugs in adolescents and improved effectiveness of parenting skills.