Substance Use and Abuse

Mental illness and substance use are closely linked. First, adolescents with mental health disorders are more likely to self-medicate, using alcohol and other drugs in an effort to cope. Second, substance abusers are more likely to develop a mental health issue, creating a complicated cycle.

Furthermore, transitional periods, such as entering a new school or school year and puberty, are high-risk periods for adolescents. A common outlet, using alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, is a serious public health issue. Seventy-five percent of high school students have used an addictive substance, and 90 percent of young people who start using before age 18 become addicted.[1]

Fortunately, substance use and abuse are preventable behaviors, and addiction is a treatable illness. School personnel have an important role to play in prevention by identifying and managing early behavioral issues.

Trends in drug use and abuse change over time.

The still-developing adolescent brain is primed to engage in risky behaviors, experiment, and seek peer approval.[2] In an effort to cope, adolescents often reach for troublesome substances. But the exact substances change over time. According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey 2013, since 2011:

  • Alcohol use has decreased;
  • Use of many illicit drugs, including cocaine, hallucinogens (like LSD and mushrooms), inhalants (like glue and paint), and ecstasy has decreased;
  • Some illicit drug use has not changed significantly, including marijuana, heroin, methamphetamines and non-prescription steroids; and
  • Tobacco use has not decreased significantly, but has been on a steady decline since 1991.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, adolescent abuse of prescription drugs is on the rise.

No matter the drug of choice, adolescent drug users and abusers are at risk—now and later. Substance use and abuse interrupts students’ opportunities for academic and personal growth. Many substances alter the brain’s ability to understand non-risky rewards; exercise, great relationships and art seem dull in comparison to chemically induced highs. Young alcohol users often develop dependency and alcoholism in adulthood.1 Tobacco product users, including those who choose newer products such as e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, hookah and flavored cigarettes, face steep challenges with chronic diseases later in life, and poor health outcomes for their future children.

School personnel can prevent substance use and abuse, and protect students.

Low levels of family supervision, traumatic experiences, mental illness, peers who are substance users, and poverty, among other factors, put children at risk for becoming users. Thankfully, the list of factors that can help protect kids is just as long. School personnel can:

  • Educate students and families about the dangers of alcohol and other commonly available substances;
  • Foster strong relationships at school and beyond;
  • Foster students’ talents and help them explore and develop personal interests;
  • Promote drug-free campuses and school zones;
  • Provide caring adult supervision; and
  • Teach impulse control and self-regulation for difficult emotions.[3]

If a student is using, it’s not too late to intervene. Ask for help from a mental health professional, such as a counselor or psychologist, if you notice a student with:

  • An association with peers who have issues with school, problems with the law;
  • Defiance and an argumentative nature;
  • Depression and disinterest;
  • Lasting cough;
  • Low self-esteem;
  • Mood and personality changes, such as irritability;
  • Poor school performance;
  • Red and glazed eyes;
  • Risky and irresponsible behavior;
  • Tiredness or lethargy;
  • Truancy and absenteeism; and
  • Withdrawal from family.[4]

[1] Caron Pennsylvania. (2014) Teenage Abuse and Addiction. Retrieved from

[2] The Surgeon General’s Call to Action To Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking: A Guide to Action for Educators. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Surgeon General, 2007. Retrieved from,1.pdf.

[3] National Institutes of Health. (October 2003). Prevention Principles. In Principles for Preventing Drug Abuse among Children and Adolescents. Bethesda, Md.: National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved from

[4] American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. (July 2013). Teens: Alcohol and Other Drugs. Retrieved from