Teenage Substance Use at Schools

Teenage Substance Use at Schools

Rebellion during the teenage years can take many different forms. While transitioning from childhood to adulthood, adolescents often struggle to achieve the independence they want and push back against the rules and restrictions imposed on them by adults. For some teenagers, small acts of rebellion such as watching TV longer than allowed is enough. Other teenagers rebel even more, getting in trouble at school, at home, and even with the law.

Drinking and using drugs are typical acts of teenage rebellion, and often happen at parties and other social events. A survey indicates that approximately 9.5 percent of Americans aged between 12 and 17 have used an illicit drug in the past month, and 12.9 percent report drinking alcohol in the past month. Some of these teenagers also abuse these substances while at school. In fact, about 9 percent of students admit to using drugs or alcohol on school property. A recent study has shown that this act of rebellion may actually be a cry for help rather than merely problematic behavior.

Researchers analyzed data from the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which is a nationally representative survey of more than 15,000 high school students. This survey is conducted every two years by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a way to monitor the behaviors and conditions that impact the health of teenagers. The survey includes questions about drug and alcohol use, as well as other types of risky behavior.

Analysis of the responses revealed that these students were also engaged in some of the other nine behaviors associated with serious health risks, including driving under the influence (or riding in a car with an intoxicated driver), getting into fights, bringing a weapon to school, being under the influence of drugs or alcohol the last time they engaged in sexual intercourse, experiencing intimate partner violence, being forced to have sexual intercourse, being depressed, having suicidal thoughts, and attempting suicide.

Both male and female students have a higher risk of exhibiting one of these nine risks when they consume substances on campus as well as off-campus. For example, students who drink or use drugs on campus have a 64 percent chance of being in a car with an intoxicated driver, a 46 percent chance of having clinical depression, a 25 percent chance of being involved in intimate partner violence, and a 25 percent chance of attempting suicide.

This report shows that using substances at school is more than just an act by a bad student. These students most likely have experienced trauma, emotional distress, or a psychological condition that requires psychosocial assessment and support. Merely punishing the students may actually exacerbate the problem, rather than providing them with the help they need. As lead author Rebecca N. Dudovitz, MD, MS, FAAP, assistant professor of pediatrics at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA and the UCLA Children’s Discovery & Innovation Institute, stated:

“When a student is found using substances at school, we should think of it as a sign that a child needs help. Given the strong association of at-school substance use with some very serious and dangerous health risks, like having experienced sexual trauma and attempting suicide, we should not dismiss at-school substance use as just another school infraction. Instead, it may be a truly urgent call for caring adults to get involved and help that student access appropriate services.”

Although some teenage rebellion is healthy, and even necessary, to help adolescents bloom into adults, there are serious, problematic behaviors in which teenagers engage that must be addressed appropriately in order to ensure that any underlying problems are adequately managed. Finding the right way to prevent, address, and manage these situations will help to curb the behavior patterns and allow the students to grow into the adults they are meant to be. Merely punishing bad behavior might not provide benefits to the students, and may even continue the cycle of problematic behavior. Providing students with the right therapeutic interventions, which could include school counseling, psychotherapy, or a therapeutic boarding school depending on the severity of the problem, will give the right type of support for the students to be able to overcome the underlying conditions fueling the problematic behavior and have a brighter future.


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