Adolescents & Substance Use Today

By Dr. Raja Abbas

If you looked at your son or daughter’s post today on Instagram, you might see a smiling selfie. But what lives behind that smile might surprise you.

Often times children are masters of masking what they truly feel. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 3 million teens between the ages of 12-17 had one major depressive episode over the course of 2015. 2 million teens report that depression impairs their daily functioning.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports 6.3 million teens suffer from anxiety disorders.

These numbers commonly are lower than what teens actually report.

What is the cause of this ubiquitous mood swing in teens? In a word: overexposed.

Teens today have been on a rollercoaster since birth. Consider the acts of global terrorism and conflict that have occurred since September 11, 2001. Consider the changes in technology that now have teens glued to devices. Consider the economic upheaval as the nation’s economy skidded to a halt and threw families into financial turmoil.

Add to it the standard stressors that come from teenage years: the pressure of school, work, college-preparation, clubs, sports and volunteer service.

Finally sprinkle in a dash of emotional development as teens face their own coming-of-age fears of inadequacy and self-perception.

It’s no wonder that this new generation is filled with fragility and doubts… on a global scale as they befriend teens from around the world and enter their “smiling” lives via social media.

To take the edge off the twists and turns of this rollercoaster ride, teens find coping mechanisms. Often times, those mechanisms are negative, like drugs, alcohol, sex and self-harm.

The rush that comes from these harmful and illicit activities can alter brain chemistry and momentarily release the pressure.

But no parent wants their children to choose these coping mechanisms. Here are a few options to help teens stay on the best course:

voices for change

Relationship with Parents

Parents need to learn to talk so adolescents listen and listen so they talk. Spending time together can help as can modeling the behaviors that can illustrate healthy habits around phones, social media, drinking and exercise.


Teens who are involved in clubs and sports can learn to appreciate the natural highs that come from stimulating body and brain activity… which in turn can help reduce anxiety.


Talking with a professional can help teens and families. Sessions that focus on a balance of spiritual, emotional and physical health for all members of the family can restore holistic well being.

Civic Support

A community is needed to help guide teens. Feeling cared about at school is crucial. Civic laws around curfew and underage alcohol use can curtail risk-taking. And issue-related causes, like Voices for Change, can create a rally cry to reinforce behaviors.

Voices for Change is a local non-profit that works to raise awareness around the disease and treatment of addiction.

There are other choices adolescents can make to avoid destructive coping mechanisms. Together, we can transform the depression and anxiety teens hide and help them face the world with confidence and compassion. We hope to see you there!

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