Greg Nance of Bainbridge B.C. struggled through his teen life with mental health and addictions problems, but turned his life around and has become an ultra-marathoner and mental health advocate. (Photo courtesy Pete Saloutos)

Greg Nance of Bainbridge B.C. struggled through his teen life with mental health and addictions problems, but turned his life around and has become an ultra-marathoner and mental health advocate. (Photo courtesy Pete Saloutos)

Early intervention is key to preventing substance abuse

Inderjit Grewal works to raise awareness for students and parents.

Inderjit Grewal works at Smithers Secondary School, as a Canadian Certified Addictions Counsellor working within the school on prevention and awareness programs to help teens deal with many different situations, and to make wise and healthy choices. Part of that mission is also keeping parents informed.

The following is information Grewal put together for the May 2022 Parent Newsletter for the school.

According to statistics, one in five teenagers has a mental health disorder.

Teenagers and people with mental health disorders are more at risk for drug use and addiction than other populations. Teens may turn to drugs or alcohol for a variety of reasons, including curiosity, to relieve boredom, peer pressure or to escape emotional pain, just like adults.

Teenagers who are struggling with emotional or mental health problems may turn to alcohol or drug use to help them manage difficult feelings or as a coping mechanism. Because the teenage brain is still developing, the result of self-medication can cause more immediate problems. Substance use can spiral from experimentation to a serious disorder more quickly in adolescents, compared to adults.

This progression is more likely to happen in teenagers with untreated mental health disorders compared to other kids.

According to the Child Mind Institute, almost half of kids with mental health disorders, if not treated, might end up having a substance use disorder. Substance use is “reinforcing,” which means that a young person is more likely to keep using a drug if it seems to help with a perceived problem or need.

At the root of teenage substance use may be an untreated or undetected mental health condition. While substance use may temporarily diminish unwanted mental health symptoms such as anxiety, hopelessness, irritability and negative thoughts, in the long term, it worsens them and may lead to abuse or dependency. Additionally, substance use may also interfere with treatment for mental health disorders and may worsen the long-term prognosis of a teenager who is struggling.

Substance use can diminish a teenager’s engagement in therapy, reducing its effectiveness. Substance use can lower the effectiveness of many prescription medications used to treat mental health disorders.

Research shows that identifying and treating mental health disorders can reduce substance use. Similarly, reducing substance use can improve treatment outcomes for mental health disorders.

Helping to identify risk factors and protective strategies early on can help prevent adverse outcomes. Talking with youth about their mental health and giving them permission to share difficult thoughts and feelings with a trusting adult is a “positive step” in early identification.

Recognizing mental health challenges in youth and connecting them early with support and treatment to help them cope can curb youth substance use (National Institute of Health). Just as it is important to monitor the physical health of teenagers, it is equally important to monitor their mental and behavioral health.

When drug and/or alcohol use is present and overlaps with other mental health problems, it is necessary to seek out support for both. Effective treatment starts with a detailed evaluation by a trained professional who can address both substance use and mental health issues.

For additional information, the Child Mind Institute and Partnership to End Addiction offer a guide on addressing co-occurring disorders in teens (substance use and mental health).