Clinically referred to as substance use disorder (SUD), addiction, is a complex mental health disorder that is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Addiction is a chronic psychiatric disorder characterized by the persistent, compulsive, and uncontrolled use of a drug despite harmful consequences. Because the disease compels a young person to prioritize satisfying his or her substance cravings above all else, a teenager can experience a plethora of adverse effects, including physical complications, relationship fractures, financial strain, legal challenges, academic decline, and more. Data from 2022 presented by the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, indicate that addiction affects over 20 million Americans aged 12 and older.
There is no single scientific reason explaining why a young person develops substance use disorder. Rather current research indicates that its development is more accurately attributed to a confluence of factors some of which include the following, provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH):
- Environmental: various environmental factors can increase one’s risk for developing substance use disorder. Normalizing drug use during childhood and constant childhood exposure to drugs can raise one’s risk for addiction. Experiencing abuse, neglect, and/ or a lack of parental involvement in one’s childhood life can also contribute to the potential development of addiction.
- Genetics: young people with a family history of addiction have a higher predisposition for developing substance use disorder themselves. Research shows that genetics have somewhere between a 40% and 60% influence on addiction.
- Psychological: a teen that suffers from another mental health disorder is twice as likely to have substance use disorder, compared to the general population. Further, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 45% of people with addiction have a co-occurring mental health disorder.
- Age of exposure: children that are exposed to and experiment with drugs at a young age are reported to be more likely to experience mental health disorders as well as develop addiction.
- Drug of choice: the type of substance abused, especially those with highly addictive qualities (e.g., heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, etc.), can partially contribute to the development of substance use disorder.
- Drug delivery method: different methods of delivery such as smoking, injecting, or snorting, largely influence how quickly a drug reaches the brain. Research has shown that the faster a drug reaches the brain, the more likely it is to be addicting.
Every adolescent is different and will have or lack various predispositions that can contribute to developing substance use disorder. Nevertheless, experts assert that through education, strengthened support systems, and greater awareness of the factors that affect substance misuse can mitigate the risks.
Focusing on education and awareness is imperative to reduce the prevalence of addiction in the adolescent population. Working towards eliminating the stigma surrounding addiction will help people become more receptive to and accepting of teenagers struggling with this complex disease. The mission of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, for example, is “to advance science on drug use and addiction and to apply that knowledge to improve individual and public health.” Drawing from empirical data, correcting erroneous myths regarding addiction, and teaching young people about substance abuse and the cycle of addiction are instrumental and effective prevention strategies.
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