Do We Still Need to Worry About Teen Alcohol and Drug Abuse?

Do We Still Need to Worry About Teen Alcohol and Drug Abuse?

What myths still surround the use of teen drug and alcohol abuse? National Drugs and Alcohol Facts Week (NDAFW), running from January 23rd to the 29th, promotes the understanding of this issue and how it impacts adolescents with 737 events currently registered around the country. While studies may show a decline in alcohol and drug abuse in teens, local populations may have different stories to report. The Palo Alto community shared their story via the Mountain View Voice, which conflicts with the previous national trend of a decline in drug and alcohol abuse in this population. Lawmakers, families, case managers and other health professionals may still need to work together to make strides and track progress in affected communities.

Data from Previous Studies

According to an annual survey with 70,000 participants across the United States over the 2002 to 2013 period, it was found that for those who were aged 12 and older, there was a decline from 8.9 percent to 5.2 percent in substance abuse or dependence problems. Additional findings highlighted from CBS News include:

  • A 2.5 percent drop in drug abuse rates in those 12 to 17 from 2002 to 2012
  • Illegal drug use rates fell below 9 percent in 2013
  • Alcohol use rates went to 11.6 percent from nearly 13 percent in 2012
  • Use of tobacco products reached their lowest rate of under 8 percent in 2013, almost half of the percent seen in 2002

This data is all good news for those who work with adolescent populations or are parents of a teenager. There are other findings that should be kept in mind. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) report:

  • Nearly 25 million people, aged 12 and older, currently use illegal drugs or used them in the last month
  • Marijuana appears to be the most commonly used drug for this group
  • Marijuana user rates increased to 7.5 percent in 2013 from 6 percent in 2007
  • Abuse of other drugs, including prescription pain killers, hallucinogens, heroin and cocaine remained the same from 2012 to 2013

Pamela Hyde, SAMHSA Administrator, said in a statement:

“This report shows that we have made important progress in some key areas, but that we need to rejuvenate our efforts to promote prevention, treatment and recovery, to reach all aspects of our community.”

A following study released by SAMHSA showed a similar pattern. Adolescents were smoking and drinking less and had reduced prescription painkiller abuse. Dr. Chanelle A. Coble-Sadaphal, assistant professor of pediatrics at NYU Langone Medical Center, believes consistent and collaborate efforts are paying off. Coble-Sadaphal said:

“There has been good awareness promoted among schools and medical communities about the dangers of use. Having a good national curriculum is one way that we’re getting this consistent message across.”

What About Your County?

Individual counties may show different results when it comes to drug and alcohol abuse rates. The Palo Alto area has been busy serving the needs of teens and their families in their Adolescent Counseling Services (ACS) substance abuse treatment and counseling center. Local sources have reported that they have observed increased numbers of adolescents and young adults taking illegal and prescription drugs and drinking alcohol. According to Seth Ammerman, an adolescent and addiction medicine specialist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, there is an “unfortunately high” level of teens with substance abuse issues in Santa Clara County.

Veronica Foster, a therapist at the Community Health Awareness Council (CHAC), said she sees a majority of kids using marijuana but there is a concern about harder drug use. She said:

“Prescription drug abuse is about to blow up in Santa Clara County. So many kids are fishing through their medicine cabinets.”

As of this year, when the original story was shared, the most reliable survey results were from 2011 from Project Cornerstone and 2013-2014 from the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District. As recognized in the story, there are challenges in tracking drug use among adolescents in the area with many school districts and agencies not participating in the California Healthy Kids Survey, once mandated when connected to Title IV funding. Many districts stopped participating when the federal program came to an end. New state requirements are beginning to encourage school districts to participate again.

This gap of consistent and widespread data forces comparisons of incomplete pictures of drug and alcohol use by teens in the area to nationwide statistics and to those districts deciding to participate in insightful drug and alcohol abuse surveys. Observations in specific regions may provide more assistance in identifying and treating issues in real-time as compared to statistics that may not fully reveal the extent of the issue. Connie Mayer, director of outpatient services for ACS, discussed what she sees as their job regarding educating and assisting teens. She said:

“Our job is to get them to recognize the potential dangers and the facts, and it’s up to them to make the choice. And many times, you do see them change. I’ve seen kids come in who are suicidal and don’t want to live, and now they are off in college, thriving, and in relationships.”

Prescription and illegal drug and alcohol use in teens and young adults continues to be an issue, even though some studies may have shown progress in specific areas. Trends and adolescent behavior may vary across the country, with marijuana use and prescription drug abuse becoming relatively common. Healthcare professionals, educators and families need to stay aware of what is happening in their area when it comes to the populations they serve. Look for upcoming events across the country or register your own event with NDAFW 2017 to enhance the understanding of the issue as it affects your area.


Lisa DiFalco is a leading writer for wellness and education. She has helped manage cases directly at halfway houses before extensive careers in education and wellness. She is passionate about vital issues and supports community improvement efforts.

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