The term “drugs” is used for mood-altering chemicals, including alcohol. Throughout history people have found ways of ingesting or inhaling local flora and fauna in a way that produces physical and emotional changes. Through these experiences, many medicines have been discovered. The use of drugs, in fact, must be seen in part as a form of self-medication. For many reasons, the abuse of drugs has become a social crisis in present times.
Adolescents find themselves in a quest for independence, sophistication, and relationships. There are strong desires to experiment-test oneself to the limit-and to gain a sense of power and unlimited possibilities. A teenager’s and early twenty’s inhibiting brain function is not yet developed. Furthermore, a young person’s response to pleasure, the brain’s dopamine reinforcement mechanism, is heightened making them more susceptible to the mood alterations of drugs. Group pressure is another strong factor in drug use.
Alcohol-related injuries are the leading cause of death among those ages 15 to 24. The use of drugs contributes to suicide, the second-highest cause of deaths among the young. Studies and interviews indicate that drug use inhibits development. Enormous are drug abuse costs to society.
Drug abuse certainly not limited to alcohol, or even to illegal substances. Presently there is an increasing trend towards young people finding new and different ways to get high, from using bath salts to other over-the-counter drugs such as cough syrup. This alarming trend has led to numerous deaths and hospital visits in recent years.
Youthful drug users can be classified as (1) experimenters, (2) social or recreational users, or (3) abusers (those with harmful dependence who periodically lose control when using the chemicals).
Drugs trap users when the drug “experimenter” gains a high from a small amount and then returns to a near-normal mood. With repeated use, more of the drug is needed, the highs may be a little better, and there is a sense that the chemical can be controlled. But the drug user’s mood returns to a level below normal once the high is past. With daily use, the user’s feelings drop to painful levels-below normal-and the drug use continues. In the end, the user reaches a state of addiction or dependency in which the drug is needed to relieve pain and return to normal. The high merely becomes relief from pain.
The most common reason for a young person’s drug use is “to have a good time with my friends” (65%). The next most frequent reason is “to feel good or get high” (49%). A predominant reason for continued use of drugs is “to relax or relieve tension” (41%). There are more similarities than differences in the reasons given by males and females. More frequent users give more reasons for using drugs than less frequent users.
Project 714 (Students Staying Straight program in Chattanooga, TN) reports these reasons given by those starting the use of, or already abusing, drugs:
Rebellion against authority (e.g., parents and school).
Feelings of failure.
Absence of standards, ethics, or positive role model in the home.
Chemical abuse is one of the most serious problems among American youth. The drug problem cannot be separated from weakness in our society. The drug problem is a “people” problem. Drug abuse will not be eradicated without helping people and strengthening our society. Legal action or education alone do not accomplish much.
Youth workers and other leaders have the opportunity to deal with the underlying emotional vacuum and issues that allow chemical highs to promise union and significance without commitment and responsibility. A positive peer or youth leader has a better chance to effectively confront and communicate with a young drug user than do the user’s parents.
Peer counselors and friends who have come through the drug experience may have the best chance of all in reaching the teenage drug user who is at a very help-resistant age.