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Substance Abuse and Treatment Statistics for Teens

Illicit substances and risky behaviors are often a part of growing up. Statistics show that a worrying number of teens report using alcohol, marijuana, and other substances. Peer pressure and inexperience can make many teens and young adults vulnerable to drug use or alcohol abuse. For young people, alcohol or drug use can be a way to numb difficult emotions. They may also believe that it helps them in social situations. The danger to teens and young adults is that misuse can lead to dependence, addiction, health problems, and unsatisfactory life choices.

This blog is about teenagers and substance abuse in the US. It examines the reasons why alcohol and drug use can become a serious problem for teens and young adults and looks at the statistics. This blog also outlines the options for treatment and the interventions available to prevent problems from developing in the first place. There are positive ways to move forward from this tough situation. If teen substance abuse is a problem in your family or you yourself are struggling with addiction, read on. You have reasons to be hopeful.

What is Substance Abuse?

What is Substance Abuse?

Substance abuse refers to the misuse of illegal drugs, prescription drugs, or alcohol. Alcohol and prescription drugs are legal in many circumstances. Illegal drugs are banned substances. Substance abuse can be understood in two ways. It is the use of a substance in a way that is forbidden by law. It also means taking a substance in a way that risks health and encourages dependence and addiction.

  • Prescription drug abuse means taking a medication in a way that is not prescribed by a medical professional. This could mean taking somebody else’s medication or taking your own more frequently, in higher doses, or administered in a different way than prescribed.
  • Alcohol abuse is not only drinking when the law forbids it, it is also drinking excessive amounts, leading to dependence and addiction.
  • Illicit drug abuse means taking drugs that are prohibited by law.

How Many Teens Abuse Substances?

The most common substance of abuse in both adults and teenagers is alcohol but drug use is also a significant problem. In this blog, we will look at the statistics to see how many teens report using and abusing alcohol as well as other drugs such as marijuana.

Alcohol Abuse

The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) monitors health-risk behaviors including alcohol and illicit drug use among teens aged 13 to 17. For high school students, it provides percentages across the whole country. However, for middle schoolers, country-wide data is not available. The information below, therefore, focuses on the statistics related to high school students (9th to 12th grade).

When questioned, a significant number of teenagers report using alcohol. The results of the YRBSS from 2019 show that 29.2 percent of high schoolers say they drank alcohol in the last month. Legally, this is substance abuse since it involves underage drinking. Worryingly, 13.7 percent of high school students report binge drinking in the last month, and 3.1 percent report drinking ten or more alcoholic beverages in a row. In total, the statistics show that 61.5 percent of teenagers report using alcohol by 12th grade and 16.8 percent consume five or more drinks in a row.

Statistics show that more than 90 percent of drinks drunk by teenagers are consumed when binge drinking. Given that they are below the minimum legal drinking age, you may be surprised by how many teenagers report using alcohol in the last month and by 12th grade.

Drug Abuse

Marijuana is the next most-used substance according to the statistics. The survey found that 36.8 percent of high school students report using it at some point in their lives. Among respondents, 5.6 percent say they tried it before they were 13, and 21.7 percent report using it in the last month. The survey also found that synthetic marijuana use was at 7.3 percent.

In terms of other selected illicit drugs such as cocaine, inhalants, heroin, methamphetamines, ecstasy, and hallucinogens, 14.8 percent of high schoolers reported using them at some point in their life. A small proportion, 1.6 percent, had injected an illicit drug.

Other research suggests that the number of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders using illicit drugs fell between 2003 to 2020. For example, in 2011, 40 percent of 12th graders report using illicit drugs in the last 12 months. In 2020 this fell to 37 percent, and by 2021 it fell to 32 percent. Some people think this may have been related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The findings about prescription pain relievers in this age group are worrying because these opioids can lead to other forms of drug abuse. Many heroin users report using prescription opioids before moving on to heroin. In these scenarios, the person develops opioid dependence and addiction while taking prescription drugs and then switches to heroin as a cheaper and more accessible option.

Why Do Teens Abuse Substances?

You may be wondering why some teens report using alcohol and drugs while others in the same age group do not. Teen drug use occurs because of a complex set of factors. There are many factors that contribute to this, including:

  • Peer pressure. This may take the form of direct pressure from friends or other peers. It also stems from the perception that everyone is using and that they need to do the same to fit in with others in the same age group.
  • Distancing from parents. Teenagers starting to distance themselves from their parents as a natural part of growing up may feel that taking drugs such as marijuana is a rebellious or grown-up thing to do.
  • Stress and mental health. Teenagers may abuse alcohol and other drugs to cope with difficult emotions or mental illness. At this age, young people suffer from uncertainty due to experiencing enormous amounts of change. This also makes them vulnerable to peer pressure.
  • Emotional development. It is natural for teenagers to seek out new situations as they explore who they are and their independence. This is an important part of the development of identity. Taking illicit substances may feel like an adventure at this age.
  • Early exposure to substance abuse. Views about drug and alcohol use develop early by watching other people and depictions of abuse in the media and popular culture. Spending time in your youth around adults who use alcohol to excess, or who use marijuana or harder drugs, may lead you to normalize these behaviors in your mind.
  • Genetics. It is thought that up to 50 percent of the risk of developing a substance use disorder comes down to genetics. Children of a parent with an alcohol use disorder are four to ten times more likely to develop one later in life. This is partly genetic but also environmental due to the influence that adults have on children.

Signs of Substance Abuse

Recognizing the signs of substance abuse can help you or a loved one get help as soon as possible. The earlier it is caught, the better. It is even possible to prevent a substance use disorder from developing in you or your child.

The following features might be signs of alcohol or drug abuse in your loved one. However, be aware that teens and young adults can present these behaviors for reasons other than alcohol or drug use.

  • Changes in mood
  • Decreased performance at school or work
  • Rebelliousness
  • Low energy
  • Neglecting personal hygiene
  • Coordination problems
  • Problems concentrating or remembering

Risks of Substance Abuse

Teen drug use and alcohol abuse come with a variety of risks. At the most extreme end, it can lead to death due to an impaired ability to judge situations. In the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey around 5 percent of high school students who could drive report using alcohol before getting behind the wheel. Another 17 percent reported using a car as a passenger with a driver who had been drinking.

Other risks of substance use include:

  • Alcohol-related injuries. In 2011, 188,000 people aged under 21 visited emergency rooms for alcohol-related injuries
  • Physical and sexual assault. There is a higher risk of experiencing physical and sexual assault when you are drinking or taking drugs. You are also more likely to be the perpetrator of this sort of violence
  • Future difficulties with drugs and alcoholic beverages. Teen drug abuse leads to an increased risk of substance problems later in life. Those who start drinking before they are 15 are more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder as adults. One study showed that people aged 26 are 5.6 more likely to report having an alcohol use disorder in the past year when they started drinking before 15 compared to when they were 21 or older. Fifteen percent of high schoolers had their first drink (other than a few sips) before they were 13.


A significant risk of substance abuse is overdose. From 2010 to 2019 the number of adolescents dying from overdoses remained relatively stable, falling from 518 in 2010 to 492 in 2019. However, from 2019 to 2020 there was a huge leap up to 954 deaths and provisional data suggests that 1146 adolescents died from an overdose in 2021. Information on this is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Statistics show that the death rate due to overdose is peaking at younger ages, currently in the mid-thirties.

What we have also seen is a change in the level of contamination of street drugs with fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. In 2021, 77 percent of adolescent overdose deaths involved fentanyl. A teen may think they are buying the branded version of Oxycontin, Xanax, or Adderall but it can be very difficult to tell the differences between counterfeit prescription drugs and the real deal. You may then get a substance mixed with something you did not intend to take.

What is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a powerful opioid painkiller that is used to treat severe pain for those who have developed a tolerance to other opioids. Fentanyl is up to 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. As little as 2 mg of fentanyl can be a lethal dose depending on the person. In 2021, the DEA found that four out of ten pills contained at least 2 mg of fentanyl. While fentanyl can be a prescribed drug it is also a commonly produced illicit substance, which is mixed with other things to reduce the cost for drug producers and dealers.

Signs of an Overdose

It is important to understand the symptoms of an overdose so that you can help someone if they are experiencing one. Common symptoms include:

  • Cold and clammy skin
  • Rapid or slow heartbeat depending on if the overdose is due to stimulants or depressants
  • Abnormal breathing such as irregular or shallow breathing, potentially leading to respiratory arrest
  • Vomiting
  • Pale or blue lips and fingertips

If you see someone experiencing an overdose, call 911 immediately. You can put them in the recovery position if they are unconscious so they do not choke if they vomit.

Tackling Teen Substance Abuse

Tackling Teen Substance Abuse

Joseph Friedman, who has studied trends in drug overdose deaths in adolescents has said that once overdose deaths increase exponentially after being stable, they tend to continue to increase in this way for some time. To prevent this rise and to deal with other negative effects of substance abuse, we need to work hard to make sure that teenagers do not abuse drugs or alcohol.

Most policies to reduce teen substance abuse are aimed at restricting access to drugs and alcohol. According to the 2019 YRBSS statistics, 21.8 percent of high schoolers have been offered, sold, or given an illegal drug on school property, and 43.5 percent were usually given alcohol by someone else. Policies, therefore, try to tackle this as well as increasing the price of alcohol and putting in strict laws for behaviors such as drinking and driving.

Approaches to prevent teen drug use need to look at the reasons they are taking. Some approaches for reducing the harm caused by substance abuse focus on individual, family, school, and community-level interventions.

School Level Interventions

Large numbers of young people attend schools and this can make these institutions a fertile ground for the spread of drugs and alcohol within the same age group. Naturally, attempts to counter this include school-level campaigns that focus on the worst dangers of teen drug abuse such as death. These campaigns may be ignored by teens who see friends drink and take drugs without experiencing these dire results. In these cases, teens may even feel they are being lied to about the dangers of teen drug abuse and alcohol abuse. When sharing stories about the dangers of drugs it is important to focus on the risks without dramatizing in a way that strikes teens as unbelievable.

In any school-level intervention there should be three main focuses:

  • Social resistance skills training. This aims to increase awareness of the social influences that promote drug abuse and alcohol abuse and to teach skills to avoid peer pressure and media influence.
  • Normative education. This aims to educate about the prevalence of substance abuse since it is commonly much lower than teenagers expect. It also aims to educate about the risks of drug use and what happens when you abuse alcohol.
  • Competence enhancement skills training. This aims to increase personal and social skills. Poor skills have been shown to make people susceptible to influence from adults and others in their same age group. This approach teaches general problem-solving and decision-making skills, general cognitive skills for resisting personal and media influences, skills for increasing self-control and self-esteem, strategies for relieving stress and anxiety, and general social and assertiveness skills.

It is also of paramount importance to put in place measures to protect against overdoses at schools. Naloxone is a medication that rapidly reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. Policies should be put in place to require schools and colleges to stock naloxone and to train staff to be able to administer it.

Family Level Interventions

Family can greatly affect how teenagers feel about and use drugs. If teens have access to drugs and alcohol and develop a familiar attitude about them, there is a higher chance that they will abuse them. Family interventions involve teaching parents and guardians effective ways to monitor and communicate with their teenagers. The aim here is to learn how to make and enforce family rules about substance abuse. As with school interventions, many people feel they need to tell their children the most extreme potential outcomes of alcohol and drug abuse. However, this tends not to work.

It is important that parents build open and honest relationships with their teenagers. If their child understands that their parents support them without condition and that substance abuse will not lead to punishment, they are more likely to report using drugs or alcohol to them. Often a no-tolerance policy will lead to rebellion and lying rather than abstinence. It is important to teach about safe drug use while also teaching about the risks of drugs, for example, the unpredictable nature of taking pills as they could contain substances such as fentanyl.

Community and Policy Level Interventions

Community-based interventions are generally led by local coalitions. They aim to connect organizations such as youth agencies, cultural associations, research institutions, law enforcement, and local businesses. When these groups listen to those who have been impacted by substance abuse it helps to make sure that interventions can reach those most in need. Interventions can also be based on up-to-date research. If the whole community is involved in decision-making, it is more likely that interventions will be developed that everyone agrees with and supports.

Policy-level interventions tend to work to make drinks and drugs harder to get. Examples include raising the price of alcoholic drinks, putting in place a minimum age for drinking, and operating no-tolerance responses for behaviors such as drunk driving. However, these do not deal with the reasons that people are drinking or misusing drugs. It is therefore of paramount importance to have interventions such as school-level interventions that deal with self-esteem.

Allowing access to therapy on a policy level may also help to deal with substance use. Mental health problems are a risk factor for substance abuse. Many people use alcohol or drugs to self-medicate underlying mental health problems. Therapy is a way to develop healthy coping mechanisms. It also allows a mental health professional to assess whether someone requires medication or alternative treatments before they develop a substance use disorder.

Substance Abuse Treatment

Substance abuse treatment statistics for teens reveal a worrying result. According to a 2011 study of 1.5 million teenagers who met the requirement for a substance use disorder, only 111,000 were receiving treatment. This is in part due to stigma but may also relate to poor health care coverage, lack of motivation to seek help, and lack of specialized treatment programs for teenagers. It is important to make sure that teenagers who need treatment are getting it.

The first step to recovery is accepting that you have a problem and reaching out for support. If you have developed a dependence, an inpatient treatment program may be the best option. This is particularly true if you have a dependence on alcohol, benzodiazepines, or opioids. These can cause very unpleasant and even fatal withdrawal symptoms when you quit. In an inpatient program, you will undergo detox under 24-hour supervision. This means that if you are struggling with physical or psychological symptoms, doctors and psychologists can give you the treatment needed to be as comfortable as possible and give you the best chance of long-term recovery.

Contact Us Today

Whether you have an illicit drug use disorder or you are abusing alcohol or prescription drugs, Clearfork Academy is here to help. We specifically focus on substance abuse and mental and behavioral health in young adults aged 13 to 17. We support both the individual and their family to make sure that everyone involved in their life can help with the recovery process. Part of this is allowing families to join at the weekend to take part in therapeutic activities.

We offer a variety of treatment options so that we can create a treatment program that suits your individual needs. Your treatment may take place as part of an inpatient or intensive outpatient program. You may also start with one and move to another if it suits you better. Our treatment options include:

  • Medical detox
  • Individual therapy to understand the underlying causes of substance abuse and develop positive behaviors
  • Group therapy, which allows you to speak with people going through a similar experience and help you to understand that you are not alone
  • Family therapy, which can help members to understand each other and communicate with each other better

If you would like more information or are ready to seek support, please visit our website or call us at (817) 259-2597.

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