PATH: A Positive Approach to Teen Health

Written by Chronicle Staff. Posted in Featured, Health & Wellness

Published on October 28, 2021 with No Comments

Mental Health and Substance-Use Disorders in Teens

by Donna Golob, CEO of A Positive Approach to Teen Health (PATH)

Growing up can be a difficult process for many teens. As the adolescent brain develops, it’s also asking, “Who am I?”  

Developing a positive self-image can be a daunting task in the face of peer pressure, parents, and social media. A growing number of teens struggle with depression, stress, and anxiety.

When teenagers struggle with mental health problems, have no healthy outlet to deal with painful or difficult emotions, and don’t understand healthy coping skills, they may turn to alcohol or drug use as a form of self-medication. It’s a scenario many are familiar with in adults, but the risks are much higher for teenagers because their brains are still developing. At this critical point in their development, drug and alcohol use can be damaging to their brains.

By the time they are seniors in high school, nearly 70% of students will have tried alcohol; half of students will have taken an illegal drug; 40% will have smoked a cigarette; and more than 20% will have used a prescription drug for a non-medical purpose.

There are many reasons teenagers use drugs or alcohol for the first time. Some of these teens have used it out of curiosity. For others, it will be the result of peer pressure. But for some teens, their choice to use drugs or alcohol will be a way to self-medicate the overwhelming stresses that come with adolescence.

For teenagers who experience mental health issues, marijuana and alcohol may temporarily lessen their anxiety or depression. For teens with anxiety in social situations, alcohol and drugs can quiet their anxiety enough to allow them to function normally in their peer groups. 

A teen experiencing anxiety might start by smoking marijuana before social events; soon, however, that teen may smoke every morning just to be able to deal with having to go to school. Teenagers who are depressed may use alcohol or marijuana to cheer themselves up, as substance use can quiet negative thoughts that are known to affect depressed kids. By minimizing their irritability, these teenagers are hiding a key symptom of adolescent depression.

In the short term, drinking alcohol or taking drugs may help alleviate the symptoms of various mental health issues such as anxiety, hopelessness, and negative thoughts. 

In the long term, however, substance use only exacerbates them and carries a serious risk of substance use disorders (addiction). For teens, substance use escalates from occasional use to a serious-use disorder much faster than it does in adults. The pathways between the different regions in adolescents’ brains are still developing, a quality referred to as plasticity. This plasticity is why adolescents learn new things much more quickly than adults. But, it also means that their brains develop a pathway to addiction for drugs and alcohol much more quickly. If you start drinking at 30, you don’t get addicted nearly as fast as if you start drinking at 15. 

Additionally, the progression to addiction or substance use disorders is even more likely to happen for teens who experience mental health issues. A 2016 study of 10,000 juveniles found that, of those that had developed an alcohol or drug use disorder, two-thirds had experienced at least one mental health disorder. The rule of thumb is that almost half of kids with mental health disorders, if they’re not treated, will end up having a substance use disorder. Substance use also interferes with treatment for mental health disorders and worsens the long-term prognosis for a teenager by diminishing their engagement in therapy. It also diminishes the effectiveness of prescription depression or anxiety medication. Medications are less effective when they compete with drugs or alcohol.

Drug use in adolescents frequently overlaps with other mental health problems. Finding the answer to the age-old question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” can be difficult.  Seeking treatment for mental illness or substance-use disorders can be a scary and overwhelming experience. Take courage in the fact that you are not alone. With appropriate treatment, teens can learn healthy coping mechanisms for negative thoughts or feelings to live long, healthy, and positive lives. For more information and helpful resources visit our website at www.PositiveTeenHealth.org.  

BIO: Donna Golob is the CEO of A Positive Approach to Teen Health (PATH).  Donna holds a degree in Nonprofit Executive Management from IUPUI.  She is also a certified QPR Gatekeeper Trainer and an ASIST suicide awareness and prevention trainer. Donna is committed to making a positive impact in the lives of others; encouraging them to recognize their value and reach their full potential.  She is happily married (36 years) to Rob, has 3 grown children and 4 amazing grandchildren.

About: Donna enjoys bringing her perspective and experience with SEL, team building, communication skills and leadership to parents and youth serving professionals.  

Donna oversees the development and implementation of various youth programs throughout Northwest Indiana.  These programs include after school mentoring, in-class presentations, peer to peer mentoring programs and community-wide events. Under her leadership, the development team at PATH, Inc. produced the Evidence-Based Comprehensive Youth Development curriculum, Positive Potential; Be the Exception, Push the Limits and Unstoppable.  The middle school program focuses on the reduction of teen pregnancy, bullying and violent behaviors as well as drug and alcohol use and abuse.  The program has a strong social and emotional health component with a whole person health focus utilizing positive youth development and trauma informed care. Positive Potential is available nationally and recognized by Health & Human Services as an effective program.

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