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  • Dr Aakash

Influence of social stresses on substance abuse in adolescents

Adolescence is a turbulent period with a mixed bag of emotions. Some sail through it, some struggle through it, and some, unfortunately, get trapped in its dark side.

A few days ago, while sitting in the common study area of the library, I overheard a bunch of young students complaining about a certain lecturer who was a nag. They hated how he always had a zillion assignments for them. A tall guy in the group talked about how it was getting difficult for him to balance assignment submissions with prepping for the exam that was coming up. The others agreed in unison. One of them, with a smirk on his face, suggested they go out that evening to “relax”. While most seemed to agree with him, one girl suggested that they stopped “doing it” before they became “addicts”. They dismissed her concern and continued chatting.

It was not hard for me to figure out what they were talking about, considering how common smoking has become among adolescents, despite the dangerous consequences it brings along.

Substance abuse pandemic

Substance abuse refers to the excessive use of drugs that are either legal (tobacco, alcohol) or illegal (cocaine, marijuana, heroin), for purposes other than intended. One is said to have a substance use disorder when the misuse of said drug causes significant problems in their productivity, relationships or physical well-being.

So what’s the big deal about “substances” when you know most of your friends do it and are still doing well? Substance abuse is comparable to what one may call ‘slow poison’. It does not show its harmful effects in a day or two. It can take weeks and in some cases, years for it to produce adverse effects. Many people have trouble recognizing how substance abuse might be affecting them and it’s usually their loved ones who notice a change in their behaviour. Sadly, by the time a person is ready to accept how their health is deteriorating, they’ve already developed a dependence on the substance.

Adolescence – a highly impressionable period. Are they at higher risk for substance abuse?

Substance abuse has been an increasing cause of concern, especially in the younger population. The adolescent age group saw the sharpest rise among all age groups for substance use over the past two decades, according to a recent case study.

Adolescence is a period in life where we undergo not only physical changes in our bodies but also grow socially, emotionally and mentally. We tend to become very self-conscious, spend more time with friends rather than family, and seek approval from peers even when we subconsciously know it’s unnecessary. Because it’s such a vulnerable period of growth, it’s easy to get influenced, both positively and negatively.

There are many reasons why an adolescent can fall prey to a substance abuse disorder. Peer pressure, where we feel pressured to do certain things just to be accepted by our friends or seek validation from them, is one such reason.

Academic stress, constant pressure from family to outperform peers, failure of romantic relationships, fights with close friends, traumatic events, and financial issues at home can all push a vulnerable adolescent into the trap of substance abuse.

Several studies have been conducted on how traumatic events in childhood and adolescence can influence a person in their life. From substance use disorders to schizophrenia, childhood and adolescent trauma can adversely affect the future of an individual. It is extremely important to provide a home environment where there is no physical or emotional abuse, no drug abuse among parents and where the child is not neglected and made to feel unsafe. All these factors can mentally traumatise and lead one to the path of substance abuse.

I’ve personally seen friends become addicted to alcohol due to difficult romantic relationships. It is one of the commonest reasons among adolescents for gravitating towards substances.

It’s very important to surround yourself with people who have a strong conscience, friends who can tell you or call you out when you’re going on the wrong path and those who can motivate you to do better.

Is my friend a victim of substance abuse?

It’s important to recognise some behaviours that point towards a possible substance abuse problem.

Is your friend suddenly missing a lot of classes? Are they partying more often than usual? Are they drinking alcohol in excessive amounts? Are they missing out on planned events that they used to previously never miss? Are they not keeping themselves hygienic anymore? Are they losing weight? Are they engaging in high-risk behaviour like rash driving or driving under the influence or sexual risk? Are they suddenly facing unexplained financial issues?

These are some of the questions one needs to ask themselves if they suspect their friend is suffering from substance abuse. This is by no means an extensive list of questions but it covers a few common behavioural changes associated with substance abuse.

Substance abuse is a multidimensional problem

It is not just the person who abuses the drug who suffers, but also their loved ones.

It was only a few days ago that my college friend texted me about the death of a batch mate. He was only 24. The cause of death? Drug overdose. I remember him being warm and kind to everyone. Never did I imagine even in my wildest dreams that I would one day be waking up to the news of his death at such a young age.

The death of a young fellow like him can bring indescribable trauma to the parents and loved ones, the trauma they may not recover from for the rest of their lives.

Substance abuse can significantly hamper one’s financial position as well. Drug abusers pour money to secure even the smallest quantity of “dope”. When they cannot afford to buy the drug, they can go to extreme measures to secure it including theft, robbery and extortion.

This could destroy familial relations and significantly affect a loved one's mental health.

So what’s the solution?

As I mentioned earlier, peer pressure is one of the contributors to the problem. One wants to be “accepted” or “valued” by their friends. But the question arises, are they even your “friends” if they don’t accept you for who you are? Do you have to dress a certain way to earn external validation? Do you have to drink at parties for somebody else’s approval? Do you have to smoke to prove you’re cool?

Remember your core values and don’t get influenced by peer pressure- that is easier said than done, but I would say it’s not impossible. It’s always important to stand your ground, and call out people, including your friends if you know what they are doing is wrong and can harm them or others. Sure, it could cause temporary hard feelings between the two of you, but it will save them from a lifetime of misery.

If you know someone who is already dependent on drugs, it’s important to have a dialogue with them. Try to understand their reasons behind the substance use, try to see if they have any insight about the issue and if they are willing to get professional help. Please keep in mind that threatening and intimidation usually do more harm than good in these cases.

Currently, both in-patient and outpatient approaches exist to treat substance use disorders. Rehabs utilise psychotherapy and counselling to address various issues that can help with cutting down on substances, and eventually quitting.

Education plays a crucial role in the prevention and treatment of substance use disorder. Talking to young adults in schools and colleges about substance abuse disorder, without considering it a social taboo is key. Spreading awareness about its deleterious effects is one of the best ways to bring down the prevalence of substance abuse.

Involving family in the treatment is beneficial. They can have a positive impact on the patient's condition and can boost the recovery process.

If you or someone you know is a victim of substance abuse, do not be afraid to seek help. It is not the end of the world and treatment exists to help recover from the disorder.

Remember, like Dumbledore from the popular Harry Potter series once said,

Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light”.

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