The New School Crisis: Substance Abuse Among Students

Substance use disorder affects students as well as adults. Statistically, students are using fewer illicit substances than previous generations, but the issue continues to result in tragedies, especially among teens and students who abuse prescription opioids.

The problem with students abusing illicit substances is not as easily identifiable as drug trends in the past. Prescription drugs can be hidden in plain sight, under the guise of over-the-counter pain relievers and common cold medications. Meanwhile, the closing of the summer months increases the risk of drug use among students, explains Jessica Harthorn of WWMT News.

Since the opioid overdose epidemic continues to dominate headlines, you need to understand what the statistics suggest for future risk of abusing drugs, how addiction can impact the lives of students, including adolescents and college students, and how substance abuse relates to mental health disorders in youth.

What Drugs Are Students Abusing Today?

Keeping with trends identified over the past five years, the overwhelming majority of students are using fewer drugs than ever before, explains the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). But, concerns are growing over the use of electronic cigarettes and softening attitudes toward the risk of abusing marijuana. While this seems promising, the true statistics continue to indicate the problem is much larger than many realize. Some of the most notable facts include the following:

  • Up to 23.6 percent of high school seniors reported past-year use of illicit drugs.
  • Marijuana and alcohol continue to be primary substances of choice for students.
  • Amphetamines and Adderall, both prescription-grade medications, were abused by 7.7 and 7.5 percent of high school seniors respectively.
  • The prevalence of abusing heroin and prescription opioids has decreased among 12th-graders.
  • The ability to obtain prescription opioids changed drastically. Up to 60 percent of high school students reported obtaining prescription opioids was “very easy.”

Federal data suggest another trend is occurring in relation to student addiction rates. According to The Washington Post, middle-aged adults are slightly more likely to abuse marijuana than their teenage children. But, a closer inspection reveals marijuana use among older adults between ages 45 and 54 has increased 50 percent. So, how does it relate back to teens and students?

Students are learning about their roles in the world, and exposure to illicit drugs, including marijuana, increases the likelihood of abusing the given substance. Moreover, adults between ages 55 to 64, such as the grandparents of today’s youngest students, are up to 455-percent more likely to abuse marijuana than previously found, and senior abuse of marijuana has increased 333 percent since 2002.

As a result of these surges in marijuana abuse among adult age groups, today’s teens are extremely more likely to encounter marijuana use by family members than any previous generation. But, how does addiction truly impact students?

The Impact of Addiction on Students

Drug abuse affects students differently than adults, especially younger students and teens. Drug addiction results in permanent changes to the brain’s chemistry, which impact a person’s ability to perform complex cognitive functions. In other words, the brain becomes used to higher levels of chemicals present due to drug exposure, which result in the buildup of a tolerance and dependence. Eventually, the addiction starts to take over all parts of a person’s life.

If this explanation is combined with the currently developing neural pathways of today’s teens, explains the NIDA, the risk of abusing stronger, more powerful drugs, such as prescription opioids, increases with prolonged drug abuse of any kind. Unfortunately, using substances has even worse consequences for students with pre-existing mental health conditions.

Why Do Pre-Existing Mental Health Disorders Heighten Risk for Addiction Among Students?

Many students may suffer from both a mental health disorder and co-occurring substance abuse, reports the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). In fact, up to 18.2 percent of all people above age 12 living with mental health problems also suffer from addiction.

Among those with severe mental health problems, such as major depression or bipolar disorder, the prevalence rates may be even higher. Unfortunately, the most recent data on the rate of students with severe mental health problems and co-occurring substance abuse is nearly 5-years-old.

Students living with mental health problems are more likely to abuse substances in an attempt to cope with the symptoms of their respective mental health conditions. Meanwhile, some mental health problems, such as bipolar disorder, may reduce inhibitions toward risky behaviors, and the risk of using substances increases. These behaviors may become compounded and pose additional threat to physical health as well.

For example, prescription drug abuse may result in risky sexual behaviors, which could cause unplanned pregnancy, infection with a sexually transmitted disease (STD) or other unsafe sexual practices, such as human trafficking.

Final Thoughts

By 2020, substance abuse disorders and co-occurring mental health disorders will surpass physical health problems as the major cause of disabilities among all populations globally. However, the best way to reduce this problem is by addressing when and where substance abuse tends to begin. In other words, drug prevention measures and treatment programs must become readily available to students, and you need to use the information from this post in the pursuit of that worldwide goal.

Jason Vanover

Working in health care since 2005, Jason's body of experience encompasses dozens of care settings, including Senior care, psychiatric facilities, nonprofit health service centers, group homes for those with developmental disabilities and beyond. Jason understands the need to tailor his skills to each setting to encourage the best treatment outcomes and promote an inclusive, healing environment.

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