Addiction in Adolescence
What is Addiction in Adolescense?
Experimenting with drugs and alcohol during adolescence is common, with half of 17-year-olds having engaged in binge-drinking, 1 in 3 having tried cannabis and 1 in 10 having tried harder drugs, such as cocaine, ecstasy and ketamine (Fitzsimons & Villadsen, 2021). In fact, adolescent drug use has increased by over 40% among school pupils since 2014, following a long-term downward trend (NHS Digital, 2019). Cannabis is the most commonly used substance among young people, followed by alcohol and then benzodiazepines (e.g., Xanax). While experimentation with drugs does raise warranted concern, it is important to note that not all experimentation leads to problematic substance use, with only a small subset of adolescents going on to develop drug or alcohol addictions and requiring more specialist support.
What causes addiction?
There are many reasons why adolescents might use substances. Experimenting and taking risks is an expected part of growing up, with many teenagers using drugs and alcohol out of curiosity; to ‘see what it’s like’. Some might use substances as a way of coping with difficult feelings and emotions (e.g., depression, anxiety, stress), to get ‘high’, to feel relaxed or less bored or to feel better about themselves. Others might use substances to try to fit in, to feel connected to others or because they are encouraged to by their peers. It is important to remember that all substances carry risks and have the potential to cause harm; some can be addictive, and using more than one at a time can increase the risks. It is a good idea to know the facts about drugs and alcohol, how they can affect your physical and mental health, and where to go if you ever want help or advice.
Signs and symptoms:
Spotting the signs that substance use is becoming a problem can be difficult, as many are typical adolescent behaviours or symptoms of other mental health problems. Helpful things to look out for include changes in mood or personality (i.e., withdrawn or depressed, anxious, less motivated or communicative, irritable or angry), or changes in behaviour (i.e., changes in relationships with friends or family members, loss of interest in school or other activities, being very secretive, going out more or less often, sleepiness or high energy). Other warning signs might include neglecting personal hygiene or appearance, changes in physical health or problems at school or work. All substance use can be problematic, but using regularly, struggling to cope without, and finding that drugs or alcohol are interfering with daily life, are clear indicators you should seek help and support.
If you’re worried about your or someone else’s substance use, it can help to talk to someone you trust. That could be a friend, parent, teacher or other professional like your GP or CAMHS therapist. Specialist substance use services for young people exist in most places across the UK. These services typically offer helpful advice and information, evidence-based interventions for young people struggling with substance use and support for parents and carers. You can often refer online or over the telephone, or be referred by your GP.
Useful websites for advice, information and support around drugs and alcohol include:
Friendly, confidential advice on drugs and details of local and national services.
Free and confidential support to people experiencing issues with drugs, alcohol or mental health.
Advice and support for families affected by drugs and alcohol.
Free, confidential support for young people under 25 via online, social and mobile.
Fitzsimons, E. and Villadsen, A. (2021) Substance use and antisocial behaviour in adolescence: Evidence from the UK Millennium Cohort Study at age 17. London: Centre for Longitudinal Studies.
NHS Digitial. Smoking, Drinking & Drug Use among Young People in England. (2019). https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/smoking-drinking-and-drug-use-among-young-people-in-england/2018/final-page
Written by Dr Kelly Charge