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Young people in their teen and young adult years have an important job: to learn more about themselves and how to become independent adults. That process can be exciting, scary and confusing all at the same time. Each day, young people face many big decisions that heavily influence their futures, including those regarding their education, employment, and social lives. One important choice that each young person will face at some point will be whether or not to use substances.
It is important to understand one key biological fact: the brain is not fully developed until the age of 25, and the last part of the brain to fully develop is the area in charge of complex tasks such as predicting consequences and decision-making. When a young person uses substances before their brain is fully developed, it can have drastic and long-lasting consequences, such as declines in grades, problems with family, losing interest in normal activities, impaired memory, mental health problems, and a risk of overdose. The best way any young person can reduce their risk for addiction in their lifetime is to delay their use of substances until at least 21.
The best way any young person can reduce their risk for addiction in their lifetime is to delay their use of substances until at least 21.
Know Your Risk
Each person has their own unique and often complex reasons for choosing to use or not use substances. The good news is that every family, school and community has the opportunity to influence a young person’s decisions regarding substance use. These positive influencers are known as ‘protective factors,’ and they include things such as:
Strong family bond
Positive connection to school
Consistent access to safe housing, food, and basic needs
Limited access to substances within a household or community
Peer attitudes and community norms that discourage substance use among young people
Healthy behaviors modeled by parents and other caring adults
Despite these protective factors, however, most people carry at least some risk for using substances. These ‘risk factors’ can include things such as:
Mental health challenges such as anxiety or depression
Easy access to substances
Peer attitudes and community norms that promote substance use
Frequent or unsafe use of substances modeled by parents and other adults
Lack of a strong connection to family, school or community
Limited parental supervision
Family history of substance use
It can be helpful to offset these risk factors if young people acknowledge them before starting to use substances. For instance, having conversations at home about a family history of substance use can help young people take into consideration that they might carry more risk for addiction than some of their peers.
Worried About a Young Person’s Substance Use?
If you are a young person and are worried about your own use or a friend’s use, you may consider whether you or your friend…
▢ Regularly gets high or drunk, or does so alone
▢ Comes to school drunk or high, or skips class to go use
▢ Feels that they need drugs and alcohol to feel good, fit in, or have fun
▢ Starts hanging out with new friends who also use
▢ Lies to about their drug use
▢ Pressures other people to try it
▢ Breaks plans or shows up late due to use
▢ Quits sports or other activities they used to be engaged in
▢ Has gotten behind the wheel and driven while drunk or high
▢ Steals or borrows money to support their habit
▢ Has passed out or become incoherent
▢ Has been the victim of sexual assault (including acquaintance rape) due to drugs or alcohol
▢ Has been arrested, expelled, or otherwise found themselves in dangerous situations due to drugs or alcohol
Additionally, since alcohol continues to be the most common substance used by young people, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) has developed the following 20-question alcohol use disorder test for teenagers. This easy quiz is designed to help teens determine if alcohol and other drugs are impacting their lives.
Answer “yes” or “no” to the questions in this quiz to determine the role alcohol and other drugs play in your life.
Do you use alcohol or other drugs to build self-confidence?
Do you ever drink or get high immediately after you have a problem at home or at school?
Have you ever missed school due to alcohol or other drugs?
Does it bother you if someone says that you use too much alcohol or other drugs?
Have you started hanging out with a heavy drinking or drug using crowd?
Are alcohol or other drugs affecting your reputation?
Do you feel guilty or bummed out after using alcohol or other drugs?
Do you feel more at ease on a date when drinking or using other drugs?
Have you gotten into trouble at home for using alcohol or other drugs?
Do you borrow money or “do without” other things to buy alcohol and other drugs?
Do you feel a sense of power when you use alcohol or other drugs?
Have you lost friends since you started using alcohol or other drugs?
Do your friends use less alcohol or other drugs than you do?
Do you drink or use other drugs until your supply is all gone?
Do you ever wake up and wonder what happened the night before?
Have you ever been busted or hospitalized due to alcohol or use of illicit drugs?
Do you “turn off” any studies or lectures about alcohol or illicit drug use?
Do you think you have a problem with alcohol or other drugs?
Has there ever been someone in your family with a drinking or other drug problem?
Could you have a problem with alcohol or other drugs?
According to NCADD, if you answer “yes” to any three of the questions on the alcoholism test for teenagers, you may be at risk for developing alcohol use disorder.
If you answer “yes” to five of the questions on the alcoholism quiz, you should seek professional help. You do have a problem with alcohol and will most likely require some level of treatment to deal with the problem. Talk to your doctor or a counselor, and show them the results of this test.
What Can You Do to Get Help?
If you are worried about a friend or a loved one, here are a few tips to support them:
Simply expressing your concern can be a big help! Be there to listen, encourage, and support – but don’t judge. It can take a while for a friend to “hear” you and to admit that they might have a problem.
Suggest that they speak to a trusted adult who will keep things confidential. This could include another parent, a trusted teacher or counselor, or coach.
Immediately tell someone if the situation becomes dangerous, such as a possible overdose, risk of drunk driving, or suicide. You may be concerned that your friend will be angry with you, but you may just be saving their life! Friendships can be repaired, but serious injury or death can be permanent.
Understand that addiction is a brain disorder and that to get better, people need appropriate help. This could include treatment, counseling and/or medication, as well as support from family and friends. It is not reasonable to tell someone to simply “just stop.”
Take care of yourself! It is tough dealing with friendship issues, especially when complicated by addiction. You too may need to reach out to a trusted adult or find support. Alateen is a support group for young people dealing with a family member or friend’s addiction (www.alanonalateen.org – meetings are listed online).
If you are worried about your own use, there are resources listed below that can help! Even though the developing brain can be harmed from substance use, the earlier you reduce or stop using substances, the faster the brain can bounce back! Getting help early can prevent lots of long term, bigger issues. There are local, state and national resources available to youth and young adults that may be struggling with substances.
The Natick Health Department, Natick Public Schools, and the Natick Police Department all have staff members who care and want to help. If you’re looking for an adult who can help you get treatment or support services, you can contact:
Katie Sugarman, Prevention Outreach & Program Manager at the Natick Health Department, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 508-647-6623.
A guidance counselor, social worker, or school nurse within your school. As a Natick resident, you can also get placed with a counselor in the community through the INTERFACE Referral Line by calling 888-244-6843.
Sonja Wagner, the Advocates mental health clinician at the Natick Police Department, at email@example.com or 508-647-9500.
The Natick Service Council has a Substance Use Awareness Program is a psychoeducational program for Natick teens who experience challenges related to substance use. To get more information Kathie Fair-Chandley, the Director of Case Management, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wayside Youth & Family Support Network’s TEMPO program offers one-stop support for anyone between the ages of 16-25. TEMPO can assist with housing assistance, vocational support, treatment navigation and many other services. Call 508-879-1424 for more information.
Herren Project is run by Chris Herren, a former addict who played for the Boston Celtics. His project helps people navigate treatment, allows individuals to reach out directly to a team member at the project about seeking treatment, and has access to online support groups.