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Substance Abuse and Mental Illness: How to Address the Epidemics Our Teens Are Facing

Substance abuse and mental health issues go hand-in-hand. If your teen is struggling with one, she is likely struggling with the other.
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Last Updated
April 22, 2019
posted on
June 10, 2022
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6 min
Minute Read

All parents think it won’t happen to them. You’ve taught your child to stay away from drugs and alcohol. You’ve explained the dangers and the consequences. Surely your child won’t get wrapped up in these things or in the wrong crowd.

The truth is, no child is immune to trying drugs and alcohol, and no child is immune to developing a substance abuse issue, especially if the child already has a preexisting mental health condition.

According to the National Center for Drug Abuse, 62% of high school seniors have abused alcohol. Fifty percent of teens have misused a drug at least once. And drug use among eighth-graders rose 61% between 2016 and 2020.

Since Covid, we’ve seen a rise in mental health issues among teens. With these combined, our teens are now facing two epidemics. 

This is why I wanted to sit down and talk to an expert about why substance abuse related to mental health is such a problem among teens and what parents can do about it. So this week on my podcast I interviewed Richard Capriola, the author of The Addicted Child: A Parent’s Guide to Adolescent Substance Abuse.

For over a decade, Richard worked with teens with mental illness and substance abuse issues at Menninger Clinic, one of the top ten psychiatric hospitals in the country.

During our conversation, he shared the dire situation we’re facing with our teens and how parents can read the warning signs in their child for substance abuse, which he said should be caught as early as possible in order for the recovery to happen as quickly as possible.

I highly recommend you listen to our full podcast episode here. Here are a few key takeaways from our conversation:

Drugs and alcohol are coping mechanisms for a bigger issue.  

Richard says pretty much all teens abuse drugs or alcohol in attempt to medicate an underlying problem, typically a psychological or psychiatric issue. 

Similar to adults, teens get uncomfortable whenever an “internal, intolerable thought, emotion or memory” surfaces. They want to get rid of the thought or feeling. Substance abuse gives them relief.

To treat substance abuse, Richard says, you have to treat the underlying cause. If you suspect your child is using drugs and abusing alcohol, it’s important to address the anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or other mood disorder that could be causing your child to want to use drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism.  

Look for changes in your child.

Since early intervention is key, Richard says to look for the following changes in your teen which could indicate substance abuse, a mental health issue or both:

·      decline in grades

·      discipline problems at school

·      loss of interest in activities he once liked

·      becoming secretive about friends and where he’s going

If these changes come and go, this could be typical adolescent behavior. But if they are consistent and increase, there is likely something more going on.

Richard says the first thing to do as a parent if you’re noticing these changes in your child is to have a conversation. Don’t be accusatory. Be curious. Ask questions. See how they’re doing. They might shut down or get defensive. But they also might open up to you.

The next step is to get them evaluated by a professional. That could be your pediatrician or internist or a counselor who could determine if there are any underlying mental health problems that need to be addressed.

Don’t forget to help yourself too. 

Parents who have children with addiction are under a lot of stress themselves. They are anxious and fearful for their child, and they also feel guilty, wondering where they went wrong or if their child’s addiction is their fault. With the stigma related to substance abuse, few parents reach out to others in their times of need. 

Richard made the excellent point that parents need to get help during this time too. They need to have a support group, circle of friends, community or counselor they can talk to as their child is in recovery. Don’t neglect your own needs when your child needs you most. 

Again, I highly encourage you to listen to my full conversation with Richard Capriola here to learn how you can see the warning signs in your child for substance abuse and how we can face these epidemics head-on to create a better future for our teens.

Dr. Meg Meeker, MD

Practicing pediatrician, parent, grandparent, coach, speaker, and author. Say hello @MegMeekerMD

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