Risks of Substance Abuse are Different for Teens

Risks of Substance Abuse are Different for Teens

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Substance abuse is the number one problem for our nation. More deaths, illnesses and disabilities are caused by substance abuse than by any other preventable disease.

Another concern is the subtle mental impairment in the case of teenagers. Such mental impairments may go unnoticed because they might, on the surface, appear as a learning disability, depression, behavioral and conduct disorder or attention deficit disorder.

More teens are becoming cognitively impaired by substance abuse. And, substance abuse is increasing in female teens. Compared to the 1960s, more than a four and half times girls between the ages of 10 to 15 years who start drinking.

Teen binge drinking may impair such intellectual abilities as the ability to do calculations or read a map.

The harm from alcohol and other drugs to children may occur at a time when their brain is growing and acquiring increasingly more complex skills. It is commonly believed that that the brain grows up to 16 of 17 years of age. So, one might think that when a person goes to college, his brain is not so vulnerable to the harmful consequences of substance abuse. Right? Wrong!

Recent studies show that significant developments take place in the brain up until the age 21. A lot of people attend college in these years. Heavy substance use may interfere with further development of mental abilities and functions.

Take the memory, for example. The hippocampus can be called brain's "memory organ," (because it is critically important in the shaping and forming of memories. Studies show that the hippocampus keeps growing until age 21. Heavy use of alcohol or drugs may hamper the growth of this memory organ or other brain receptors, thus impairing a person's memory and learning capacity.

A survey by Harvard Public Schools show that 44% college students are binge drinkers and 74% acknowledge that they binged in high school. Can this impair the mental abilities of our youth?

Dr. Sandra Brown of the University of California at San Diego found that alcohol dependent teens demonstrated impairment in memory, spatial reasoning and verbal skills.

Often, when teens binge drink, they also smoke and do other drugs. Such combination of alcohol, drugs and nicotine is even more likely to destroy the brain cells.

The impairment resulting from heavy drinking during teen years may be seen in later years. Researchers from University of California at San Diego found that women who were binge drinkers during their teen years had poorer visual memory compared to those who were not.

We tend to believe that a person has to drink for many years before the drinking could impair the mental abilities. Not so. Not so, especially in the case of teens whose brains may just not develop to extent they are capable of because of heavy substance use. Sadly, they may never even realize what they missed.

We parents have to make our children aware of the fact that their brains are growing even when they seem to be all grown up. Tell them that they may be very smart but they can be even smarter if they protect themselves from harmful substances. The body can take far more abuse before it shows any damage, but the brain is a far more sensitive, subtle and delicate organ. It needs far more caring, protection and nourishing. We wear helmets for the same reason, don't we.

Sometimes, heavy drinking, smoking, drug use and depression perpetuate one another. Some depressed adolescents may "medicate" themselves with alcohol, drugs and nicotine, which may keep the depression cycle going.

Seek help right away. Don't postpone treatment because "It's not really a serious problem."

Instead of having one "big talk" when you have to, you should have lots of 'small talks" with your children on an ongoing basis about such matters as the peer pressure, effects of substance use, sex, bullying, teasing, etc.

Start talking early. A few children start smoking or drinking during the elementary school years. So, don't leave talking to the later times when you can talk as "man to man" or as woman to woman, for that matter.

The day, after the Father's Day is declared by the U.S. senate as the "National Eat Dinner With Your Children Day." This came about because a survey by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse indicated that the more regularly children and parents ate dinner together, the fewer the children were at risk to smoke, drink or do drugs. This day is to remind us how important it is to be involved in children's lives, even in the case of a fiercely independent and "all grown up" child.

So, on June 18th, make sure to eat dinner with your children and talk and then ever after.

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Copyright 2001, Mind Publications 


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