New Study Shows Link Between Teen Stress & Substance Misuse

When I told a friend of mine who is a social worker at a large local high school that I was speaking to students about mental health and wellness; she said, “You have to talk about marijuana, tobacco and alcohol use.”  At first, I thought the topic was out of my scope, I’m not an ‘anti-drug’ speaker, I leave those topics to the other guys. I talk about coping with stress and anxiety.  It wasn’t until I became approached by students after my presentations who shared with me their experience using marijuana, tobacco and/or alcohol to self-medicate during a mental health struggles, that I began to realize how right she my friend was.

As if my friend’s “I told you so” wasn’t enough, I recently read a study from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health that found a “link between psychiatric symptoms and substance abuse among teenagers in a middle income country…”. 

The results of this data were based on 4,034 high school students who were between the ages of 15 to 18 years old.  The study is relevant to teens and students in a few ways -- any caring adult that mentors, works or lives or mentors teens, should take the time to read about the insights this article provides.  Firstly, the notion that only ‘certain’ students rely on substances to cope doesn’t hold up when placed aside this student, a student’s family income may not be a factor in whether use, it could be any student.  Another insight this study sheds light on is that substance use may start off as a recreational or social and grow into something more than that.  Furthermore, using marijuana, tobacco and alcohol could become a dangerous and unhealthy strategy to cope with a mental health struggle.   On the other hand, what is encouraging about this study is the empowering fact that students are looking for coping strategies, they may be getting introduced to the wrong ones, but the need is definitely there, which makes it even more important that we provide them with alternative healthy coping strategies. 

Having a conversation around saying "no" to a substance that is offered to your student is must. Practicing what they will say when tobacco, marijuana and/or alcohol is inevitably offered to them, is a great exercise.  However, this study urges us to add another layer of questioning behind why the friend or acquaintance is offering it to your teenager, maybe they are playing the role of an 17-year-old psychologist and saying "it will help you not get so stressed out”, or “it will help you to relax, help you with being so nervous all the time".  If any of these symptoms or other mental health symptoms strike a cord with your teen just saying "no" might be an unfinished and shaky response. 

When I was a teen, particular when I was at optimal mental health -- feeling good about my life with my feelings, thoughts and emotions in check.  My "no" at that time was the equivalent to a lion’s roar, Noooooo! Mustafa from the Lion King would be proud. But, if offered a substance during a transitional period in my life when I was struggling with my emotions, thoughts and feelings during a transitional period in my life, my "no may not have been that firm. It would probably sound like "naw…., maybe…., what do you got?". 

So, ask your teen, “can you imagine a time when you might be under a lot of stress?”. And then, ask them, “What a some things your friends do to cope with stress?” “What are some healthy and unhealthy ways you might cope with stress?”  “Which are some strategies do you think you would use?”

There are a multitude of ways our teens can cope with the stresses of teenage life outside of substance misuse, especially with the support of caring adults around them providing encouragement. I recently had the privilege to a give the keynote address at a fundraiser event. It was organized by friends of a student who passed away in his college dorm room.  The students chose to cope with the stress of losing their friend by honouring him in an environment where they could reminisce about the good times while providing support to one another. What a beautiful way to cope with a hard situation. When we can plant seeds ofhealthy coping strategies like this, the weeds of marijuana, tobacco and alcohol misuse won’t have enough room to grow.