Effect of Pandemic on Teen Substance Abuse

The pandemic has impacted almost everyone’s mental health in some way. American teens are no exception, and many in the public health sector worried how the loss of school, social activities, and milestone events might impact adolescent substance abuse.

Reasons substance abuse might decrease. With teens spending more time at home during the pandemic, they have less opportunity to obtain substances. They also have less access to peers who engage in unhealthy behaviors, which is one of the strongest risk factors for substance use. Remote learning has reduced stress for those with social anxiety and, in some cases, has also alleviated sleep deprivation caused by early school start times, both of which are risk factors for substance use.

Reasons substance abuse might increase. On the other hand, the pandemic has increased depression, anxiety, and boredom among youth, all of which can lead to substance abuse as a form of escape. Additionally, if the teen’s home situation is poor, or if the parents are drug abusers, a teen’s likelihood of substance abuse increases. Finally, some teens don’t care about the pandemic and are still hanging out with friends, but with so much shut down they have few options for positive entertainment.

NIH Study Results

The National Institutes of Health conducted a study of adolescent substance abuse during the pandemic. Here are their findings:

  • For most substances, the percentage of adolescent users decreased.
  • The frequency of both alcohol and marijuana use among young people increased.
  • For those youth who were using substances, the majority were engaging in solitary substance use (49.3%). Many teens were still using substances with peers, most via technology (31.6%) but some face to face (23.6%).
  • For teens who reported themselves as unpopular, concerns for how social distancing would affect their reputation among peers was a significant predictor of face-to-face substance use. Teens who considered themselves to have average or high popularity were much more likely to engage in solitary substance use.
  • Finally, youth who reported suffering from depression and/or a fear of COVID-19, were much more likely to engage in solitary substance use.

Warning Signs of Substance Abuse

If you are the parent or loved one of a teenager, there are a few warning signs that can let you know they may be using drugs. However, please recognize that many of these signs are common changes for any developing teen. Don’t just assume that if your teen wants to hang out with their buddies more, they are taking drugs. You want to look for drastic changes in multiple areas.

  • Unexplained health changes – if your teen experiences weight loss or gain, clumsiness, frequent nosebleeds, mouth sores, burn marks on their fingers, bloodshot eyes, a constant runny nose, frequent headaches, or lack of interest in good hygiene.
  • Drastic mood swings – if your teen is losing their ability to focus, seems more hostile or defensive, or loses inhibitions or motivation.
  • Change of interests – if your teen loses interest or begins expressing a negative attitude about things they previously enjoyed.
  • Changes at school – if your previously good student starts experiencing poor grades, skipping classes, and behavior problems.
  • Change of social circles – if your teen switches who they hang out with.
  • Change of habits – if your teen sleeps during the day and stays up at night, suddenly becomes very secretive, starts using breath mints all the time, burns incense or sprays aromatic aerosols frequently, or withdraws from the family.

Again, all of these signs individually are not a problem. All adolescents, as they go through puberty, will have mood swings, withdraw from their family and change their interests. These are only indicators if you are seeing drastic changes in multiple areas listed above.

If you suspect that your teenager might be abusing drugs, please seek help.

  • Call your pediatrician. They can help you determine if there is a problem and offer referrals and/or information on treatment options.
  • Visit Narcotics Anonymous or call them at 1-800-992-9951 to find a meeting in your area.
  • Call 1-800-662-HELP to reach a free 24-hour referral helpline from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

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