Is substance abuse common amongst teenagers?

Substance abuse is easily one of the top-most problems plaguing teens, and it seems to have got worse with easy access to a wide variety of dangerous and addictive substances.
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NEW DELHI: Teenage is usually the toughest phase; for both parents and teens. No one seems to understand anybody and it is chaos most of the time. To top it off, in 2022 teenagers are living completely digital lives, unlike any other previous generations. They have more access to all kinds of information and influence. Substance abuse is easily one of the top-most problems plaguing teens, and it seems to have got worse with easy access to a wide variety of dangerous and addictive substances.

Dr. Sapna Bangar, Psychiatrist and Head of Mpower The Centre in Mumbai, explains why teen substance abuse is so prevalent in today's times.

The Why Of It?

Dr. Bangar: Substances have always had a diabolical bond with teens, who at a delicate stage of development become likely candidates prone to abuse substances. Most teenagers go through difficult stages of self-identity, it is an age where they are trying to understand their place in the world. Common problems during this time are self-doubt, identity crisis, and low self-esteem. Teens may also suffer from emotional angst and feel misunderstood by the world, especially parents and teachers. They do feel they are capable of making decisions, but biologically their brain is not well developed yet. This makes this age group more impulsive or prone to making decisions without weighing the pros and cons of a situation. Another reason why teens are drawn toward substances can be attributed to them being developmentally in a novelty-seeking phase where they want to try new things and pay little or no heed to consequences.

To add to the stage of life, external factors may also leave teens vulnerable. Not being accepted by peer groups, being bullied, coming from families where parents have mental health issues or even having a family history of substance abuse among many similar reasons line up when identifying the cause. To add to it, teens are highly influenced by everything happening on social media. They aspire to have, do and be like another influential peer or aspirational celebrity. A false representation and aspirational qualities attached to substances on social media create FOMO (fear of missing out) and peer pressure among young adolescents and teenagers. More so, teens who have easy access to substances like alcohol and cigarettes may find it easy to adopt it as a regular habit.

Understanding The Impact

Dr. Bangar: Substance abuse is a vicious cycle. For example, a teen who is bullied takes to substance abuse and gets even more isolated. It may start with subtle changes but soon a difference can be seen in their social, academic and personal lives. They may start missing school, academic performance may deteriorate, may start lying and hiding things and showcase other kinds of erratic behaviour. A host of mental health problems are associated with prolonged use and abuse of substances, especially if they are consuming them in consequential quantities on a regular basis. A slew of mental health problems is triggered including stress-related issues, adjustment problems, anxiety, depression and in extreme cases, psychotic breakdown. From recreational use and fun activity, teens get increasingly dependent on substances which ultimately leads to abuse.

Steps To Help

Dr. Bangar: We need to have more awareness and open channels of communication for teens in our society. Parents, elders and teachers should have conversations with teenagers about substances, give them real facts and even talk about the limits. If teens are made to feel empowered about standing up for themselves and given a good understanding of the pros and cons, the likelihood of them succumbing to pressure will be less. Aggressive rules and scolding will only push teens away. A great method is also, where parents give older teens permission to use substances like alcohol, in the form of one recreational drink with them. The rule here is if the teen wants to try something, they should try it in the presence of the parent. Also, it's important to keep an eye on any early signs of abuse and use it to prevent problems from getting worse. It's important to trust parental instinct i.e. when parents feel something is not right or their child would not behave this way, they should check into the problem.

Look out for unusual signs like erratic behaviour, sudden bursts of energy, laughing inappropriately, paranoia or being phased out. There are a host of other behaviours which parents should keep a check on including changes in appetite, withdrawn behaviour or weird smells when teens come home. Parents and elders responsible should strike a balance with permission and encourage healthy communication for every kind of situation to ensure the teen feels safe to confide in and ask for help making decisions. Earlier the intervention, the better the chances are of teens being rescued from substance abuse and its hard-hitting impact.

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