Teenage Substance Abuse

Ireland has one of the highest rates of underage binge-drinking in Europe, ranked fifth, and drug use among young people has been steadily rising. Binge-drinking is the most harmful type of drinking, and it doesn’t take much to get there – for young women, it means four or more drinks in one sitting, and for young men it is five or more.

Problem drinking and drug use in adulthood has its roots in the changes and experiences that happen during adolescence, making it crucial to be aware of the risks and dangers that go along with having a good time. If you think that you or anyone you know needs help, take note of the warning signs and understand the consequences alcohol and drugs can have. Contact us for more advice.

Why do Young People Drink and Use Drugs?

  • Because it’s fun

  • To fit in with their friends

  • Out of curiosity

  • A culture of drinking has been normalized

  • Their parents drink

  • A fear of looking uncool

  • As an escape from problems- at home, school or other

  • As an act of rebellion

  • To manage the symptoms of mental illness

Effects of Substance Use

 Drinking alcohol and using drugs as a teenager doesn’t just leave you with a hangover and fuzzy memories- it can seriously increase your risk of developing both physical and mental health issues later in life. This is the unseen damage that’s happening every time you binge drink or use drugs on the weekend, damage that you will be paying for a few years down the line.

Behavioural Risks of Substance Abuse

 As anyone who has gone to a club on a Friday evening knows, alcohol and drugs can do fun, strange and scary things to people. Alcohol is a depressant, and responsible for the feeling of confidence people get because it lowers their inhibitions. At a time in their lives when feeling self-conscious and eager to fit in is very common, this “confidence” is especially attractive to teenagers.

 But as the night goes on, and more drinks are ordered, moods can turn sour. Drugs are even less predictable, and when a homebrewed “cocktail” of drugs are taken, how they will affect the user is uncertain.

Some of the risky behaviours that go hand in hand with heavy drinking or drug use are:

  1. As the alcohol acts as a depressant on decision-making, and inhibitions lowered further, people can turn angry or paranoid, and this can lead to fighting or other criminal behaviour

  2. Feeling very unhappy, which becomes a more common effect the more often a person drinks

  3. Risky sex, particularly among young women, who may find themselves in a dangerous situation and who experience higher levels of sexual assault

  4. Driving under the influence of drink or drugs, which can end in fatal or life-altering accidents. Teenagers who drink are more than 7 times more likely to get into a car accident

  5. The more often a person uses alcohol or does drugs, the more likely they are to become addicted

  6. The more often a person uses alcohol or does drugs, the more likely they are to experience behavioural disorders such as anxiety, eating disorders or suffer from depression. 

Physical Affects of Substance Abuse

There are also a large number of physical issues associated with substance use and abuse, some of which have a bigger impact on the developing brains and bodies of teenagers. This is especially true for young women, who become addicted faster and experience more health issues.

Physical risks that can be caused by problem drinking or using drugs include:

  1. Alcohol poisoning or accidental drug overdoses can have fatal or life-altering consequences

  2. Teenage girls who binge drink have a higher risk of developing osteoporosis. Binge-drinking and regular alcohol consumption lowers the body’s ability to develop bone mass, which continues to develop until women are 20-25.

  3. The younger that a person is when they begin to drink, the more likely they are to become addicted

  4. People who drink in their teenage years are at a greater risk of developing liver cirrhosis in adulthood

  5. The use of some illicit drugs is linked with causing mental health issues. Hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD are linked with schizophrenia, heavy alcohol use can be linked to depression or anxiety and long-term use of marijuana can be linked to motivation reduction.

Teenage drugs and the brain

The teenage brain is in a state of flux and transformation, which continues well into mid-late twenties. The major changes we experience during this time are the pruning and myelination of the neurons firing in the brain. In simple terms, pruning shaves down the areas of the brain that don’t get used, while myelination builds stronger connections in the areas that do. Teenagers are also more likely to act on their emotions than adults when making decisions.

This makes teenagers vulnerable at a crucial time of development to the effects of drink and drugs. As emotion and motivation is a primary driver for teens, they are more strongly affected by the dopamine reward pathways when taking drugs or drinking—in other words, they enjoy it more. This can be dangerous if a habit is formed and the brain is reconstructed around this dominant experience, leading to addiction in adulthood. It also leaves teens at risk of under-developing critical skills, such as emotional regulation, impulse control, motor control, judgement, and ability to retain new information or use cognitive skills.

Signs of Substance Abuse in a Teenager

It is true that teenagers will be experiencing many changes, and their personality and behaviour may change during this time. However, it is important to understand when these changes may be due to a developing addiction. Here are some signs to watch out for:

  • Changes to normal habits, or behavioural changes

  • Change in friends group

  • Rapid weight fluctuations

  • Quitting social activities

  • Bad grades or bad behaviour at school

  • Secretive behaviour such as lying, stealing, sneaking out, locked doors, unexplained absences

  • Avoiding eye contact

  • Unusual tiredness

  • Poor hygiene

  • Memory problems

  • Bloodshot eyes

  • Drug use equipment found

Old Problem, New Solution

The government has publicly recognised the need to tackle this problem. The Ireland National Drug Policy 2017-2025 calls for substance abuse to be confronted as a mental health problem, and has pledged to increase support for underage drinkers. Elsewhere, there have been attempts to curb antisocial behaviour associated with underage drinking. Dubbed “Operation Irene”, the Gardai in Dublin have been dispatched to target underage drinkers in public spaces.

One of the most interesting ideas to arise from this Policy is that Ireland may launch a pilot scheme modelled after the Icelandic approach to their own underage drinking problem. 20 years ago, Iceland had one of the highest levels of underage drinking in Europe- 42% of teens admitted to drinking. Today, that number stands at a mere 5%.

Combatting Alcohol Abuse in Iceland

Icelandic researchers believed that children and teenagers were drinking alcohol because the culture expected them to and that they were becoming addicted because of poor coping methods developed in response to periods of stress, boredom, abuse etc. American psychologist Harvey Milkman, instrumental in developing the current Icelandic model, explains that the teenagers “could be on the threshold for abuse before they even took the drug, because it was their style of coping that they were abusing.”

To combat this epidemic of underage substance abuse, Iceland focused on providing teenagers with a replacement. Community programmes such as dancing, art, music and sports were set up and at-risk adolescents encouraged to join without being told it was a pilot to reduce harmful substance abuse. These activities naturally replaced the experiences that the teenagers were seeking from substances- for instance, the highs from drugs, or the anxiety release when drinking. Alongside the community focus, another key role was that of the parent in the child’s life. Parents were encouraged to engage with their children, oversee their leisure time, and ensure structure in their lives.

These two simple ideas ushered in an astonishing turn around in public behaviour. Ireland hopes to launch the schemes in Galway, Mayo and Roscommon and would involve 7000 adolescents.

If you would like more help and information on addiction treatment, you can contact us here. For more information about the admissions process, or treatment at Smarmore Castle alcohol and drugs rehab centre, please call our confidential phone lines: You’re welcome to call our team anytime.

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