By James J. Crist, Ph.D., author of What to Do When You’re Cranky and Blue
Addiction to drugs or alcohol is a continuing problem for many teenagers. Over half of the almost 3 million new users of illicit drugs in 2013 were under 18 years old. Some kids even start using alcohol as young as age 10. The younger kids start, the more likely they are to become addicted. More than half of new drug users start with marijuana, and while rates of alcohol and cigarette use have declined, the rate of prescription drug (particularly opioid pain medication abuse) have increased.
Abusing drugs and alcohol often affects students’ academic performance. They are also more likely to drop out of school. Many teens with addiction problems have co-occurring mental health disorders. Their substance use is often an attempt to cope with the symptoms of these disorders. Given that addiction typically takes hold during the teen years, identifying drug and alcohol problems early and referring teens to proper treatment can go a long way toward preventing problems later in life and helping these teens be successful. Educators may be among the first to see signs of addiction in teens and are in a unique position to identify these students and help them get appropriate treatment.
Signs of Addiction
One of the most common indicators of addiction is a change in previous behavior or academic performance. A sudden decline in grades, a change in peer group, skipping class or school, and a worsening of hygiene are common examples. Many times, teens will make excuses for their behavior or low grades that, over time, do not add up.
In the classroom, teachers should also be aware of signs of intoxication. These may include bloodshot eyes, falling asleep in class, a lack of responsiveness, tardiness, leaving the classroom unexpectedly, incomplete assignments, or talk of drugs and alcohol with peers. Kids who are using drugs often are not able to learn, especially if they are coming to school under the influence.
Responding to Signs of Addiction
Taking a punitive approach to substance use can often be counterproductive, at least initially. Talking with a student privately about your concerns is more respectful and increases the chances that the student will acknowledge them. Start by sharing what you have observed and let the student know that you are worried and would like to help. You might also refer the student to the school counselor for further assessment. Counselors can help students work with their parents to seek proper evaluation and treatment. Some schools run confidential substance abuse groups for teens, which can be very helpful.
Legal and Administrative Concerns
Because of the laws against drug use in school and the fear of being arrested, students are less likely to be honest about their drug or alcohol use. Another concern for teens is the zero tolerance policy many school systems have regarding drugs and alcohol. If you suspect a student is under the influence and you are required to report this to school officials, the student could be expelled from school in addition to facing legal charges. While protecting other students is a laudable goal, students who are expelled are at greater risk for further problems, including continued substance abuse, greater unemployment, and more criminal activity. This poses an ethical dilemma. At the same time, being caught and facing legal consequences may actually be helpful to the student in ensuring that he or she gets help (which can be court or school mandated in some circumstances). This can also provide greater incentive for avoiding relapse. It is a tough balancing act.
The Importance of Prevention
Given the substantial risks associated with substance abuse, efforts to prevent students from experimenting with drugs and alcohol are essential, though the success rate of programs such as D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) is questionable. According to research cited by the National Institute for Drug Abuse, prevention programs for middle or junior high and high school students should increase their academic and social competence by helping them improve their study habits, providing academic support, improving their communication skills, helping them develop positive peer relationships, and teaching them to be assertive (which can help them say no to peer pressure) and advocate for themselves.
Educators can assist with this by building lessons on these topics into their teaching curriculum. Since teens may resort to drug and alcohol use as a way of coping with stress, focusing on positive ways to reduce stress, such as exercise, meditation, relaxation training, and even just talking over problems with a trusted adult or friend, can be very helpful. Offering to help students who are struggling academically may also help them feel better about themselves and make it less likely that they will resort to substance use to deal with their frustrations.
Close ties with family members, particularly parents, have been shown to be a protective factor against developing problems with addiction. Likewise, having a close relationship with a teacher or other educator can have a similar effect. This is why it’s important not to give up on a student who seems to be slipping away. Such students may be experiencing more emotional pain than is readily apparent. Having someone in their life who cares without being judgmental can be the bridge they need to be open to seeking help and making positive changes.
Dr. James J. Crist is a psychologist specializing in children with ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorders. He is the clinical director and a staff psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Center in Woodbridge, Virginia, where he provides psychological testing and individual, couples, and family psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults. Visit his website at jamesjcrist.com.
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