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Learning About Substance Use Disorder in Teens

What is substance use disorder?

Substance use disorder means that a person uses substances even though it causes harm to themselves or others. It can range from mild to severe. The more signs of this disorder you have, the more severe it may be.

Substance use disorder can develop from the use of almost any type of substance. This includes alcohol, drugs, prescription medicines, and over-the-counter medicines.

Most of the time, substance use disorder starts with casual use. You may not think there will be a problem if you use a substance once or twice. But substance use can lead to substance use disorder. And it sometimes happens quickly.

Substance use changes your brain's structure and how it works. Teens who keep using substances may develop a strong need, or craving, for the substance. You may want to stop using a substance but can't. You may become physically dependent on the substance. You may have uncomfortable symptoms (withdrawal) if you stop using it or use less of it.

When you have substance use disorder, the substance controls your life. You may neglect school, work, or your relationships. You may keep using it even though it leads to legal trouble or causes physical problems.

Why do teens use substances?

Teens may use substances for many reasons. They may want to:

  • Fit in with friends or certain groups.
  • Feel good.
  • Seem more grown up.
  • Rebel against adults.
  • Escape problems. For example, teens may use substances to try to:
    • Avoid the symptoms of mental health problems, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or depression.
    • Ease feelings of insecurity.
    • Forget about emotional, physical, or sexual abuse.

What problems can substance use cause?

Using substances like alcohol or drugs can change how well you make decisions, how well you think, and how quickly you can react. They can make it hard for you to control your actions. Substance use can:

  • Make car crashes more likely. If you drive while you are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, you can easily crash and hurt yourself or others.
  • Lead to unprotected sex and/or sexual assault. This can lead to pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
  • Cause you to do things you wouldn't usually do. You may say things that hurt your friends or do something illegal that could result in paying a large fine, losing your driver's licence, or other legal problems.
  • Cause you to lose interest in school and your future. Poor grades or lack of focus may make it harder to reach your dreams.

Substance use also can change how you feel about your life. It can increase the risk of anxiety, depression, and suicide.

Do not drive while you are impaired, and do not ride in a car (or any type of vehicle) with someone who is impaired.

How do you say no to drugs?

If someone offers you drugs, here are some ways to say "no."

  • Look the person in the eye and say "No thanks." Sometimes that is all you need to do. Say it as many times as you need to. Also ask the person not to ask you again: "I'm cool with my decision, so don't bother me again."
  • Say why you don't want to use drugs. Here are some examples: "I don't like how I act when I'm on drugs," "I like to know what I'm doing," "If my parents find out, they'll take my car away," or "I have to practice with my band tomorrow."
  • Walk out. It's okay to leave a party or group where drugs are being used.
  • Offer another idea. "I'd rather play video games" or "Let's listen to some music." By doing this, you might also prevent your friend from using drugs.
  • Ask for respect. Make it clear that you don't want to use drugs and that continuing to ask you is showing no respect for your opinions. "I don't give you a hard time, so why are you giving me a hard time?"
  • Think ahead. If you think you might go someplace where drugs are used, don't go. But if you do go, think in advance about what you will do if someone offers you drugs.

How is substance use disorder treated?

If you have substance use disorder, treatment usually includes group therapy, one or more types of counselling, and education. Sometimes medicines are used to help you quit. If you are physically dependent on substances, you may need medical treatment. You may need to stay in a hospital or treatment centre.

Treatment focuses on more than substance use. It also helps you cope with the anger, frustration, sadness, and disappointment that often happen when a person tries to stop using substances.

Treatment also looks at other parts of your life, like your relationships with friends and family, school and work, medical problems, and living situation. It helps you find and manage problems. Treatment helps you take control of your life so you don't have to depend on substances.

Substance use disorder affects the whole family. Family counselling often is part of treatment.

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