Not just ego: Low self-esteem can fuel substance abuse

“Self-esteem” is one of those terms which can cause some eyes to roll. Maybe it brings touchy-feely imagery to mind, or the suspicion that some people need to toughen up.

The reality is a bit more complicated. Fundamentally, self-esteem is a person’s sense of value and worth. People with healthy self-esteem feel good about themselves, their ideas and their ability to contribute to the rest of society.

Too much self-esteem can make a person insufferable – and as Psychology Today warns, prevent individuals from learning from their mistakes. Low self-esteem also brings a host of problems.

Poor development of self-esteem: A predictor of substance abuse

Recently, a new study appeared in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence examining the connections between childhood neglect, and the resulting low self-esteem and drug abuse later in life. In the study, researchers from the University of Georgia at Athens (UGA) examined a group of adolescents drawn from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health.

The study’s subjects were then grouped by the reported direction of their self-esteem: declining, ascending and stable. Curiously, both the declining and ascending groups reported greater levels of neglect along with the use and abuse of alcohol and cannabis. For the researchers, the results suggest that poor development of self-esteem may be the bridge between childhood neglect and substance abuse in adolescence.

Connections between low self-esteem and drug use have been known for some time. In 2006, researchers from Florida State University (FSU) published a study in the Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse. After studying a sample of 872 boys over a nine-year period, the researchers discovered, “Low self-esteem is kind of the spark plug for self-destructive behaviors, and drug use is one of these,” said study author John Taylor, Ph.D., in an FSU press release. “It’s a fundamental need to have a good sense of self. Without it, people may become pathologically unhappy with themselves, and that can lead to some very serious problems.”

In the study, the researchers found that children with very low self-esteem were over 1.5 times more likely to become dependent on drugs at the end of the nine years the study was conducted. Additionally, the results of the study also showed drug use during early years was a major risk factor in drug dependence. Of the subjects who reported drug use at age 13, 37 percent of them later met diagnostic criteria for drug dependence.

Signs – and potential origins – of low self-esteem

Writing in Psychology Today, Suzanne Lachmann, Psy.D., describes several ways low self-esteem develops. Bullying, which has also been known to have other harmful effects, plays a large role in how self-esteem develops. However, Lachmann warns that parents play a large role in how bullying affects a child’s self-esteem. Both supportive and over-supportive parents can have a negative effect on a bullied child’s self-esteem.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there are multiple signs of low self-esteem in children, some of which include:

  • Avoiding challenges, tasks and other activities without making an effort to try. Or quitting at the first sign of a challenge
  • Cheating or lying when a game appears to be going wrong for them
  • Regression – acting babyish, which can invite ridicule from other children
  • Social withdrawal from friends
  • Mood swings
  • Declining school performance
  • Self-critical comments such as, “It’s all my fault,” “I’m just stupid” or “I do everything wrong”

Low self-esteem fuels depression

Although low self-esteem isn’t necessarily depression, the Self-Esteem Institute warns that it often fuels depression. Often mistaken for ordinary moodiness, teen depression is a serious problem which requires – and benefits from – treatment. Mental health advocacy group Mental Health America states that adolescent depression is increasing.

Depression is treatable, however, especially by professionals. White River Academy, a therapeutic boarding school located in Delta, Utah, provides boys aged 12 to 17 a safe, welcoming environment in which to move past their challenges and into a full potential. For more information, please contact our 24/7 helpline.

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