Early drug abuse weighs heavy on youth development

School of Communication
University of Miami

“I was smoking for a long time and it was like an everyday thing to me. It was a part of me, and now that part of me isn’t there. How can I cope with that? I need something there. It was hard, but I take it one day at a time. If I get tempted to relapse, I tend to go somewhere positive or find someone positive, so that thought doesn’t come back… I feel a lot better about myself. I feel a lot sharper. I don’t feel lazy anymore,” said Alby, 18, a recovering marijuana user whose words were captured by author Cate Baily in her article Heads Up: Real News about Drugs and Your Body.

Leah Kheir, a first-grader at South Miami Community Center, stares at classmate Anam Majid while a counselor places a bracelet around her neck during recess in Murray Park (Photo by Jamie N. Stephens).

“Addiction is typically not associated with being a teenager. When we think of addicts, we picture the alcoholic who has been drinking for over 20 years, or the street addict who panhandles for money to buy drugs,” one anonymous user said on a recovering addicts Web site inspirationyouth.com.

Each year, millions of youth and young adults in the United States fall victim to the fatal attractions of drug and alcohol use. From academics and athletics to the workforce and relationships, today’s generation is suffering at the hands of deadly narcotics and this early abuse proves to weigh heavy on their future physical, social and emotional development.

“We are all born with innate desires to be in an alternative consciousness and universally everyone has a desire to be altered, to feel different,” stated Marc D. Gellman, Ph.D., University of Miami Professor and Associate Director of the Division of Health Psychology and a Miller School of Medicine Behavioral and Clinical Researcher.

“The reason people, particularly young adults choose drugs to alter their reality is simply because drugs are “easy”; their easily accessible, their easy to use and they are a much easier outlet than exercise, extreme sports or therapy to change our state of feeling,” said Gellman.

“Major states like California, Texas, Florida and New York are amongst the top locations of excessive drug use essentially because their prime ports of entry. They all possess that geographical advantage of being near the borders where the drugs are shipped, thus making drugs even more accessible,” he said.

Research proves that the influence of drug and alcohol use contributes to potential health risk behaviors and leads to death, disability, and social/emotional development problems among young adults in the U.S. Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note the following:

  • Among youth, the use of alcohol and other drugs has been linked to unintentional injuries, physical fights, academic and occupational problems, and illegal behavior.
  • Long-term alcohol misuse is associated with liver disease, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and neurological damage as well as psychiatric problems such as depression, anxiety, and antisocial personality disorder.
  • Drug use contributes directly and indirectly to the HIV epidemic.

“It is likely that alcohol and drug use are associated with poorer emotional and social functioning in adulthood; however, this will depend on a myriad of factors including self-esteem, social support, cognitive ability and pervasiveness of drug use said Elizabeth Bell, Florida Head Start program advocate and University of Miami Child Development professor.

“In addition, this will be dependent on whether or not emotional and social problems are the cause for the adolescent to use drugs and alcohol. If this is the case, early social and emotional difficulties will combine with alcohol and drug use to place the adolescent at risk for future social and emotional difficulties,” said Bell.

The prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse among young adults and the negative effects they have on their health, professions and personal lives are inevitable. With the accelerated, progressive nature of our nation, narcotics are becoming more easily accessible which results in younger users of alcohol and illicit drugs including marijuana, cocaine (crack), heroin, hallucinogens, inhalants and any prescription-type psychotherapeutic drug used non-medically.

“Ultimately, young adults widely experiment with narcotics because of the “Forbidden Fruit Theory”; God told Adam not to eat the apple and parents tell kids not to smoke and drink, but we tend to do what we’re told not to,” said Gellman.

According to authors of the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) report, “illicit drug use in the United States has risen to its highest level in 8 years. Last year, 8.7 percent of Americans aged 12 and older — an estimated 21.8 million people — said they used illicit drugs in the month prior to the survey, which represents a 9 percent increase over the 2008 rate.”

Ashley Dukes, 22, smiles at her study partner Elena in the Hecht Athletic Center Academics Lab (Photo by Jamie N. Stephens).

Additionally, officials at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) stated that “the rise was driven largely by an increase in the use of marijuana, which rose to 6.6 percent in 2009 after holding steady at around 6 percent since 2002. The increase was particularly high among youth aged 12 to 17 and young adults aged 18 to 25. Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug; about three-quarters of those who report illicit drug use cite marijuana abuse.”

“These results are a wake-up call to the nation,” said Pamela S. Hyde, administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), at a press conference held last September to announce the findings. “Our strategies of the past appear to have stalled with ‘Generation Next.’ Parents and caregivers, teachers, coaches, and faith and community leaders must find credible new ways to communicate with our youth about the dangers of substance abuse.”

In regards to academic attainment and social/emotional development, high school students (grades 9-12) who abuse drugs and alcohol are more likely to seriously consider suicide, become involved in a physical fight, carry a weapon and drive while drinking alcohol.

“Students who use substances are usually lethargic and have low energy while in school. They develop unhealthy eating and sleeping habits. These students tend to socialize with other youth who use substances as well. They also tend to be emotionally unstable at times, and lack self-control,” said Candance M. Morley, registered clinical intern and Miami Northwestern High School social worker.

Marcel Wolfgang Dussard, 14, an aspiring social worker and eighth grader at Coral Springs Charter School in Coral Springs, Fla., claims that though he’s never been pressured to use drugs or alcohol he does know many classmates that do engage in both smoking and drinking.

“I personally think people smoke/drink because they feel they want to be “cool.” If one person tries it the next person does too and once a kid likes something it is very easy to get addicted to it,” said Dussard.

Research survey figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 15 percent of high school students with mostly A’s were offered, sold, or given an illegal drug by someone on school property, and 44 percent of high school students with mostly D’s/F’s were offered, sold, or given an illegal drug by someone on school property during the 12 months before the survey.

“Drug use and abuse can lead to a future of struggles. Substance use and/or abuse can lead to involvement in the criminal justice system, unemployment, and mental health issues. Physical health can also be a risk factor with substance use and abuse,” said Morley.

Nonetheless, many moderators and mediators play into effect in terms of who abuses and why they abuse, especially in regards to children and young adults whom are still maturing and in so many words “finding themselves.”

Varied mediators or causations, such as socioeconomic status, parenting and media and moderators, called influences, such as age, sex, and race, are highly considerable contributions to drug and alcohol abuse; particularly, in regions with high poverty levels such as south Florida where a lower-class, minority raised in a single-family home is more-likely to be exposed and susceptible to the pressures of narcotics especially if it’s illegal.

To illustrate, from 2002 to 2008, while illicit drugs remained steady across age, sex and race, alcohol continued to rise cross-culturally amongst users 12 years and older, proving itself as one of the top two legal substances in the world, only second to tobacco.

“The U.S ingrains alcohol as a party substance while other cultures ingrain alcohol as a food substance, which is why it’s often abused instead of moderated by young adults because of this unhealthy association,” said Gellman.

Bell added “From my background in child development, I would say that exposure to peers who use drugs and alcohol; low parental monitoring; depression; and other life stressors (e.g., trauma) are major influences of drug and alcohol use by minors.”

Bell also notes that “children who have friends who use drugs and alcohol and who have parents who do not monitor their activities or do not clearly enforce rules about drugs and alcohols have fewer reasons to say no to drugs and alcohol and may not fully understand the risks associated with using drugs and alcohol.

In addition, children who suffer from depression or stressful life events (e.g., exposure to violence, sexual assault, death of a parent) may turn to drugs and alcohol to deal with their emotions.”

When asked what he feels has a major impact on youth using drugs/alcohol Dussard admitted that certain advertisements, websites, movies, television and video games do widely influence kids to smoke and drink.

“When they see the people on television smoking and doing drugs they feel obligated to do it also. But it’s really up to the parents to control what television programs their kids are watching,” said Dussard.

“While there are many other factors to consider, abusing drugs and alcohol will place adolescents at risk for negative life consequences such as social isolation, poverty, sickness and even death,” said Bell.

“The government can place more educational programs for youth regarding the effects of substance use. This information would be useful to be delivered to students in a school setting to prevent substance and drug use,” noted Morley.

To the contrary, it is not solely up to the government for it is the foremost responsibility of the educators, counselors and parents whose purpose is to raise, instruct and guide our youth to healthy, happy and promising futures.

First graders run a relay in physical education class (Photo by Jamie N. Stephens).

“I believe that many of students I work with are influenced to use drugs and/or alcohol by their surroundings. The students live in a dilapidated area where there is a large amount of substance use. These children have grown up watching adults in their lives use substances and it has become a norm. They do not see the harm that it causes, and are naive to the consequences. Some of these young adults feel that they are exempt and will not become addicted or dependent to substances. A lack of education on the effects of substances also plays a role in substance use by youth,” said Morley.

In order to further prevent substance abuse by young adults we have to address the three primary reasons: (1) curiosity (norm of social learning), (2) boredom (lack of direction), and (3) peer pressure (need to belong).

These three elements are all natural experiences for youth but once these experiences become permanent and re-occurring then they tend to lead to drug abuse and addiction.

Gellman concluded, saying “alcohol and drug abuse are secondary problems and are used basically to cover negative feelings created by the initial “primary” problem which falls anywhere from childhood psychological, emotional, social or physical conflicts, ranging from childhood molestation to broken homes to neglect and depression.”

All in all, there are an immense amount of opportunities and programs designed to put a stop to young drug abuse so that our generation of tomorrow can be better prepared to help make this world a better and safer place to live, love and learn.

For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide six strategies that teachers, administrators, other school staff, and parents can implement to increase the extent to which students feel connected to school:

  1. Create decision-making processes that facilitate student, family, and community engagement, academic achievement, and staff empowerment.
  2. Provide education and opportunities to enable families to be actively involved in their children’s academic and school life.
  3. Provide students with the academic, emotional, and social skills necessary to be actively engaged in school.
  4. Use effective classroom management and teaching methods to foster a positive learning environment.
  5. Provide professional development and support for teachers and other school staff to enable them to meet the diverse cognitive, emotional, and social needs of children and adolescents.
  6. Create trusting and caring relationships that promote open communication among administrators, teachers, staff, students, families, and communities.

“Personally, I choose not to do drugs because I have had family members end up dead because of it.

Niah Thompsom, a first-grader at South Miami Community Center, rushes to finish her homework (Photo by Jamie N. Stephens).

For example, my father got so caught up in the world of drugs, gangs and gambling that it cost him his life.  I don’t want to end up like him so I try hard to stay far away from it all which is why I wish to one day be a social worker because I love to help people in need and bring families closer together,” said Dussard.

As a child development scholar and activist, Bell assured that both education and parental monitoring are two critical pieces of prevention of drug and alcohol abuse in adolescents.

“Education about the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse should be combined with warm and responsive parenting and the opportunity to seek supportive counseling so that adolescents have an alternative to drug and alcohol use to handle any social and emotional difficulties that they face,” Bell stated.

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