Substance Abuse / Chemical Dependence in Adolescents

What is substance abuse/chemical dependence?

There are three different terms used to define substance-related disorders, including the following:

  • Substance abuse

    Substance abuse is used to describe a pattern of substance (drug) use leading to significant problems or distress such as failure to attend school, substance use in dangerous situations (driving a car), substance-related legal problems, or continued substance use that interferes with friendships and/or family relationships. Substance abuse, as a disorder, refers to the abuse of illegal substances or the abusive use of legal substances. Alcohol is the most common legal drug of abuse.

  • Substance dependence

    Substance dependence is used to describe continued use of drugs or alcohol, even when significant problems related to their use have developed. Signs include an increased tolerance or need for increased amounts of a substance to attain the desired effect, withdrawal symptoms with decreased use, unsuccessful efforts to decrease use, increased time spent in activities to obtain substances, withdrawal from social and recreational activities, and continued use of a substance even with awareness of physical or psychological problems encountered by the extent of the substance use.

  • Chemical dependence

    Chemical dependence is also used to describe the compulsive use of chemicals (drugs or alcohol) and the inability to stop using them despite all the problems caused by their use.

What substances are most often abused by adolescents?

Substances frequently abused by adolescents include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Alcohol

  • Marijuana

  • Hallucinogens

  • Cocaine

  • Amphetamines

  • Opiates

  • Anabolic steroids

  • Inhalants

  • Methamphetamine

  • Tobacco

What causes substance abuse/chemical dependence?

Cultural and societal norms influence acceptable standards of substance use. Public laws determine the legal use of substances. The question of whether there is a normative pattern of substance use in adolescence remains controversial. Substance-related disorders in adolescence are caused by multiple factors including genetic vulnerability, environmental stressors, social pressures, individual personality characteristics, and psychiatric problems. However, determining which of these factors are primary and which are secondary in adolescent populations has not been determined. Most of the knowledge available regarding substance use and abuse comes from studying adult populations. A lack of research studying youthful substance use and abuse leaves questions concerning how it differs from substance abuse in other age groups unanswered.

Who is affected by substance abuse/chemical dependence?

Parental and peer substance use are considered two of the more common factors contributing to youthful decisions regarding substance use.

Some adolescents are more at risk of developing substance-related disorders, including adolescents with one or more of the following conditions present:

  • Children of substance abusers

  • Adolescents who are victims of physical, sexual, or psychological abuse

  • Adolescents with mental health problems, especially depressed and suicidal teens

  • Physically disabled adolescents

What are the symptoms of substance abuse/chemical dependence?

The following are the most common behaviors that indicate an adolescent is having a problem with substance abuse. However, each adolescent may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Getting high on drugs or getting intoxicated (drunk) on a regular basis

  • Lying, especially about how much they are using or drinking

  • Avoiding friends and family members

  • Giving up activities they used to enjoy such as sports or spending time with non-using friends

  • Talking a lot about using drugs or alcohol

  • Believing they need to use or drink in order to have fun

  • Pressuring others to use or drink

  • Getting in trouble with the law

  • Taking risks, such as sexual risks or driving under the influence of a substance

  • Suspension from school for a substance-related incident

  • Missing school due to substance use

  • Depressed, hopeless, or suicidal feelings

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