Substance abuse is arguably the biggest problem among teenagers in the U.S. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University reports that 75% of U.S. high school students have used an addictive substance at some point and that 20% meet the criteria for addiction. Despite this, resources and treatment options for this population continue to be limited due to budgetary restraints and the issue not being viewed as a top priority.
What Substances are High School Students Using?
The 2014 Monitoring the Future survey, which analyzes the drug use of 8th, 10th and 12th graders across the country, revealed interesting trends about the drug use of high school seniors. Marijuana remained the most widely used drug among high school seniors, with 11.6% reporting smoking it in the past year. Adderall came in at second (6.8%), followed by synthetic marijuana (5.8%), Vicodin (4.8%) and tranquilizers (4.7%).
Although many of these substances are also widely used by middle school students, there are some clear differences in the five most widely used drugs of 8th graders compared to 12th graders. Middle schoolers use inhalants at much higher rates (5.3% vs. 1.9%), while 12th graders use Adderall at significantly higher rates (6.8% vs. 1.3%).
Perhaps the most encouraging data from the survey is that alcohol use has declined across the board among teenagers. Past-month use of alcohol among 12th graders dropped from 43.5% in 2009 to 37.4% in 2014, in addition to declines among 10th graders (30.4% to 23.5%) and 8th graders (14.9% to 9%). Binge drinking (defined as five or more drinks in a row the previous two weeks) also declined significantly over this same five-year period, with 19.4% of high school seniors admitting to consuming dangerous levels of alcohol.
Tobacco and e-cigarettes
The survey also showed high rates of e-cigarette use among high school students. Just over 17% of 12th graders reported using e-cigarettes in the past 30 days, compared to 16.2% of 10th graders and 8.7% of 8th graders. In addition, most of these students were unaware of the dangers of e-cigarette use; only 14.2% of 12th graders viewed regular use of these products as harmful.
Other forms of tobacco are also widely used among teenagers. Past-year hookah use among 12th graders jumped last year to 22.9%, marking the highest rate since 2010. However, cigarette smoking is currently at an all-time low in the survey’s history (which began in 1975). Daily cigarette use among 8th graders dropped from 2.7% in 2009 to 1.4% in 2014. During that same time period cigarette use declined from 6.3% to 3.2% among 10th graders and from 11.2% to 6.7% among 12th graders.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, marijuana continues to remain the most popular drug among high school students. Rates of pot use have continue to remain stable over the last five years, with 21.2% of 12th graders reporting using marijuana in the last 30 days, compared with 16.6% of 10th graders and 6.5% of 8th graders. Nearly 6% of the 12th graders surveyed reported using marijuana on a daily basis.
However, more teens than ever that the dangers of marijuana use are minimal. Only 36.1% of high school seniors surveyed last year believed that regularly smoking pot was harmful to the user, compared to 52.4% in 2009. But while they might find the dangers to be minimal, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they endorse it; a whopping 73.4% of 12th graders disapproved of adults regularly smoking marijuana and 56.7% were opposed to even occasional use among adults.
The survey shows that past-year, non-medical use of Adderall has remained steady at 6.8% for 12th graders. But fewer high school seniors view regular prescription stimulant use as being harmful, from 69% in 2009 to 55.1% in 2014.
This is a disturbing trend because while stimulant use is often associated with college students, a study published last July in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence showed that the abuse of this drug often begins in high school. Led by Elizabeth Austic, Ph.D., her team analyzed survey data from 240,000 teens and young adults and found that the peak age for illegally using stimulants is between 16 and 19 years of age. Stimulant use was twice as high among women compared to men, while white and Native American teens abused these drugs more than all other racial and ethnic groups.
Substance Abuse in School
The use of drugs and alcohol among high school students isn’t limited to off-campus parties. A 2012 study from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse revealed that 17% of high school students either smoke, drink or use drugs during the school day.
This substance abuse is a well-known fact on high school campuses. Nearly 86% of the 1,003 students surveyed said they knew of classmates who abused illegal substances during the school day and more than 50% knew specific locations on or near school grounds where this took place. Almost 44% of students even knew of a classmate who sold drugs on or near campus.
What Can Be Done?
High schools across the country have made varying attempts to curb drug abuse among students, but their attempts haven’t yielded much success. Findings released last March in the American Journal of Public Health showed that the zero-tolerance approach of schools in Washington state were far less effective than the more moderate approaches of schools in Victoria, Australia.
The authors noted that “students attending schools with suspension policies for illicit drug use were 1.6 times more likely than their peers at schools without such policies to use marijuana in the next year.” Suspensions also led to a 60% increase in the odds of drug use in school, even for those who weren’t suspended.
Public high schools throughout the country are also now drug testing students who participate in extracurricular activities, but it’s led to minimal positive tests and proven to be a waste of money. A classic example of this is in Edmond, Okla., where the three public high schools in town drug tests 750 students throughout 2013 and recorded a mere eight positive tests.
Even well-intentioned programs can be met with resistance. In November 2014, local parents in Seattle protested a drug recovery high school because they thought it was in too close of a proximity to an elementary school, sparking concerns of relapses near young children and drug dealers roaming the area.
Adolescent Treatment Facilities
Many parents find it difficult to get their children the drug treatment they need. Although most states offer some type of adolescent treatment facility, they can be expensive and may not need the specific needs of an individual patient. Substance abuse treatment is extremely rare in children’s hospitals and state services often lack the resources to accommodate this population.
However, for those who can afford it, there are nationally acclaimed rehab facilities available that have specific programs for teens. Muir Wood Teen offers a residential program for boys in Petaluma, Calif., as well as outpatient programs for both genders in San Rafael, Calif. The Gateway Foundation offers drug and alcohol rehab programs for teens in Illinois and St. Louis, Mo., while Hazel Street offers treatment options for boys and girls throughout Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
Click here for a list of accredited drug rehab centers for teenagers.