Teens cite substance abuse to relieve stress-related factors, report shows

Teenagers with substance abuse problems are turning to alcohol or drugs to reduce anxiety or depression issues, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control shows.

The new findings follow reports from medical professionals across the nation, including Dayton Children’s Hospital, about the significant behavioral health challenges that children are facing. The hospital’s CEO has said “it’s the health care crisis of this generation.”

Among teens from 13 to 18 years old who are being assessed for substance use disorder treatment, the most commonly reported reasons for substance use included seeking to feel mellow or calm, experimentation, and other stress-related motivations, the new CDC research shows.

Reducing stress factors, teaching healthy coping skills, and addressing mental health may reduce the motivations for drug use, the CDC said.

“A lot of the kids, when we ask them what they liked about smoking or drinking or whatever their drug of choice is, nine out of 10 times they’re saying it helps with their anger and it helps them calm down. It keeps them from acting out basically,” said Elizabeth Liapis, program manager of South Community’s Nicholas Residential Treatment Center.

What is stressing kids out?

Dayton Children’s behavioral health unit typically sees fewer teens in the summer when school is out, said Christine Murray, a behavioral health therapist at Dayton Children’s.

There are programs now where kids and their parents can log in and look up their grades any minute of the day, which can create pressure to do well on school work, such as for AP classes.

There’s more access to grades, which can be helpful at times, but it can fuel anxiety, Murray said.

“Everybody wants their their child to be the very best at everything, but it can’t come at the risk of their mental health. They have to learn how to pause and do something for themselves to calm their body down,” Murray said.

Balancing extracurricular activities with school and other commitments can be difficult, she said. Conflicts between friends and family members can fuel stress.

While social media and technology can be useful in creating and maintaining connections, it also provides an avenue for conflict to persist.

“It used to be that you could go to school, have a certain issue with someone at school, but you went home and...you didn’t have contact with that situation or people until the next school day. That doesn’t happen anymore,” Murray said. “This stuff is coming at them 24/7.”

Stress for everyone, adults and their kids, has escalated, she said. Like other generations before them, teens today are living through national and global events that may have made their home lives unstable.

“The parents of today were kids when we had the 2008 crisis with housing, and families lost their homes and lost their jobs and things like that. The parents of today grew up in unstable kind of houses because of that stress,” Murray said.

With the end of the pandemic, the changing job markets, and more working from home, day-to-day life can be difficult for everyone.

“The stress level for everyone, including teens, is just through the roof,” Murray said.

Drug-induced deaths among area adolescents and teens, according to the Ohio Department of Health
CountyAge category20192020202120222023
Butler15 to 1912113
Clark15 to 1900120
Darke15 to 1901010
Greene15 to 1900040
Miami15 to 1901001
Montgomery10 to 1400002
Montgomery15 to 1952721
Shelby15 to 1900010
Warren15 to 1911101

Of teens who misuse prescription medications, half have reported using those drugs alone, the CDC says, which creates concern for overdosing alone.

Between 2019 and 2023, there were 43 drug-induced deaths―all deaths for which drugs are the underlying cause―in adolescents and teens in the eight-county region, including 19 in Montgomery County in those years, according to the Ohio Department of Health’s Data Warehouse. There were zero drug-induced deaths in those categories in Champaign and Preble counties.

“One of the biggest things that, especially with the rise of fentanyl, it’s always that fear of overdosing,” Liapis said. “...If you’re going back to using the same amount and you’re by yourself, you risk of overdosing increases significantly.”

Gaining healthy coping skills

Addressing underlying mental health issues will help address the substance use, Liapis said

Families can also learn how to deal with conflict in the home together.

“We encourage families to take part in family sessions,” Liapis said. Knowing how to communicate when frustrated can help families solve the issues at hand.

Parents who listen to their kids about why they are using substances can help adults get to the root of any issues, such as stress or mental illness, which could be prompting the substance use, Murray said.

Teaching healthy coping skills includes what adults and parents are modeling for their kids, Murray said.

“The first thing they really need to do is look at their own coping,” Murray said. If adults say they need a glass of wine or a cigarette after a long day, teens can pick up on that.

Parents need to be starting the conversation about emotions and coping pretty early on, Murray said, adding that it was never too late to start talking to teens about healthy coping skills.

Exercise, practicing mindfulness, and eating healthy are all ways to help improve moods, she said.

Family time is another helpful tool in helping kids alleviate stress, she said.

“Laughing and enjoying time in the common areas of the house are really important,” Murray said.

By the numbers

Of the adolescents who reported using substances:

  • 73% said it was to feel mellow, calm, or relaxed
  • 50% to have fun or experiment
  • 44% to sleep better or to fall asleep
  • 44% to stop worrying about a problem or to forget bad memories
  • 41% to make something less boring
  • 40% to help with depression or anxiety

By category:

The most frequently reported motivation for alcohol use and nonprescription drug misuse was to have fun or experiment, 51% and 55%, respectively.

To feel mellow, calm, or relaxed was the most reported motivation for use of marijuana at 76%, and misuse of prescription pain medications at 61% and prescription sedatives or tranquilizers at 55%.

The most common motivation for prescription stimulant misuse was to stay awake at 31%.

Information provided by the Centers for Disease Control.

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