Teen Topics: Substance Abuse, Drug Addiction and Mental Health

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People from all classes, races, religions, and age groups deal with mental health and drug abuse issues, and teenagers are no exception. According to experts, 1 in 5 teens has some sort of mental illness. Both substance abuse and mental health issues are common, and they also commonly occur together: They’re known as co-occurring disorders for this reason. But they are also treatable. Many people who struggle with addiction or mental illnesses have productive, fulfilling lives.


Lots of people, including teens, start using illegal or illicit drugs as a way to self-medicate when they experience mental health issues. Parents often report that their children who use drugs also have a diagnosis of anxiety, depression, or attention deficit disorder. An anxious teen might try drinking to calm the anxiety. Depressed teens might try uppers to improve their mood. But trying to medicate these issues on your own can have dangerous health effects. Proper treatment of teens and adults who self-medicate requires the underlying mental health issue to be treated along with the substance abuse issue.

Effects of Drugs and Alcohol on Mental Health Disorders

Although many teens turn to drugs and alcohol to try to mitigate symptoms of their mental health disorders, both alcohol and drugs can cause a worsening of symptoms. For example, alcohol is a depressant, so while drinking might make someone feel a little better for a short period of time, it can make people with underlying depression feel worse in the long term.


Denial is an issue for people abusing drugs or people struggling with a mental illness, no matter how old they are. Denial is when people refuse to believe evidence that says things aren’t OK. Teens tend to be in denial about the damage that both of these issues are causing in their lives. They tell adults or worried friends that everything is OK and they aren’t any different from their friends. Parents and other adults can also be in denial. It can be hard for concerned adults to believe that a child they care about is suffering and struggling with mental illness or substance abuse.

Signs and Symptoms of Substance Abuse

Although each teen is different and the way each teen’s drug issue evolves is different, there are some commonalities to look for if you are concerned that a teen is doing drugs. These signs include falling grades, red eyes, odd bursts of laughter, loss of interest in things they used to enjoy, bad personal hygiene, strange eating patterns, acting secretive, or being tired all the time or at odd times. Teens who start missing curfew or who disappear may also be using drugs.

Signs of Common Co-Occurring Disorders

Teens often self-medicate to treat co-occurring mental disorders. The most common diseases they may be attempting to treat with alcohol and illicit drug use include anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. It’s essential for people involved in the lives of teenagers, including other teens, teachers, parents, and family members, to watch for signs of undiagnosed mental illness and to assist teenagers in seeking appropriate help for any suspected mental disorder.


There are a variety of treatment options available to help a teen with mental health and drug addiction issues. A teen’s pediatrician or primary care doctor should be the first stop. The doctor can provide any necessary referrals and help the family find appropriate services. Families will also need to consult their health insurance company to understand what benefits are available. Treatment options can range from outpatient visits to medical professionals to inpatient hospitalizations.


Self-help, or self-care, is vital for all people, but it’s especially important for teens and young adults. Good sleeping habits, eating well, exercise, meditation, and setting limits on screen time can help with issues of anxiety and depression. Other help is usually needed as well, but taking good care of yourself is an excellent first step.

Support Options

Plenty of organizations offer resources to help teens find support. The government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers a helpline to help people find mental health resources. Recovery groups like Narcotics Anonymous host groups focused on teens and young people. There are also online, anonymous support groups for a variety of conditions and issues.

How to Talk to Someone and Ask for Help

Asking for help is hard. Teens fear judgment, loss of freedom, loss of parental trust, and being misunderstood. But you never need to be ashamed of asking for help. School counselors, teachers, and other adults can help teens talk to their parents, and the adults in their lives can help them get the help they need.

Signs for Parents to Be Aware Of

Parents should monitor their children’s behaviors for radical changes. If a previously bubbly, busy, outgoing teen is locked in her room and barely manages to brush her hair, that’s a sign that there’s likely to be some sort of mental health crisis going on that needs to be addressed. Falling grades, retreating from friend groups, wearing long-sleeved clothing in warm weather, and other changes are not just possible signs of drug abuse but could signal mental health issues.