Number one health problem in adolescents: study
9 out of 10 drug addicts start using drugs before the age of 18.
June 29, 2011 — — Matt Helmer was the teenager who begged his parents to give $20 to every homeless person on the street. He was the guy who worked at the bagel shop and took last night’s loaves to the local pantry instead of throwing them away. He was the young man in his twenties who always stopped for a broken down car on the side of the road.
But he was also the teenager who started smoking marijuana at age 14 before turning to oxycontin two years later. He destroyed his mother’s car as he drove stoned, stole his friends’ money, dropped out of high school and spent three weeks in jail after his parents reported him for stealing their cards credit.
“He went from experimenting to stoning all the time,” said his mother, Evelyne Morel, of Cream Ridge, NJ. “It was so painful to watch. The last few years have been intensely hellish.”
But in 2008, Morel received a phone call saying Matt, then 22, was trying to hang himself while high on cocaine. He was in a coma for three days before he died on September 24, 2008.
Now, a new report has revealed that most addicts are like Matt – 90% of them start in high school. That’s a stark stat for many, but Morel wasn’t surprised.
“Matt knew he would end up dead or in jail if he didn’t go to rehab and get clean,” Morel said. “Unless you witness it, you don’t realize how addiction can get so out of control.”
Researchers from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, or CASA, found that nine out of 10 American drug addicts started smoking, drinking or using drugs before the age of 18 and that one in four people became addicted to some kind of drug.
“We now have enough scientific data to show that adolescent substance use is the No. 1 public health problem in the United States,” said Susan Foster, lead researcher of the study. “By recognizing and responding to this as a health issue, we can make a real difference in improving life prospects for adolescents and reducing costs to society.”
Adolescence is a critical time in brain development and experts say adolescence puts people at increased risk for addiction because their brains are more sensitive to substances and they are more likely to experiment and take risks.
“The brain is still developing until the age of 25, so when you put nicotine and psychoactive substances in the body, it actually disrupts the brain during its development,” said Dr Stanton Glantz, director from the University of California at San Francisco Center. for tobacco and research and education. “Nicotine tends to be the gateway drug when children start smoking at a younger age. They are more likely to become addicted and to smoke for a longer period of time.”
Glantz went on to say that smoking creates permanent changes in the brain. When a person stops, some of these changes reverse, but never completely. Researchers also know that tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs act the same way in the brain, so using one substance increases the risk of addiction to others.
Addiction costs billions
“Addiction is the costliest health condition in America today, and it leads to 70 other illnesses requiring hospitalization,” Foster said. “It leads to a host of very costly health and social problems that are largely preventable. We can do something about it.”
Foster said preventing teenage substance use starts with screening young people for their mental health and family addiction histories.
“We need to…ask questions, intervene and understand the circumstances that exist in the family, including mental health issues, addiction history and eating disorders.”
Society also needs to move away from a culture that glorifies and promotes substance use as a way to relax or have fun and improve the accessibility of available treatments, she said.
As for Morel, who works with teens, she hopes to see better communication between parents and teens about drugs and addiction.
“It’s a disease that can happen to anyone,” Morel said. “In ninth grade, it was like a switch had flipped on Matt. It’s not just poor or homeless kids that this can happen. They’re no more susceptible than any other child. ‘between us.”