Some people may start using drugs or alcohol as a way to self-medicate and relieve the symptoms of an underlying condition such as depression, anxiety or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). People with depression often turn to stimulants, while individuals suffering from bipolar disorder, ADHD or chronic anxiety may be drawn to the calming effects of alcohol or pain medication.
The risk of addiction varies depending on the substance. The nicotine found in cigarettes and chewing tobacco ranks as one of the most addictive drugs, with about 30 percent of people who try it becoming addicted, followed by heroin, cocaine and alcohol. Contrary to popular opinion, stimulants and marijuana are addictive. About 10 percent of people who use marijuana will develop a chemical dependency.
Substance use does not necessarily lead to addiction or problem use, but trying any drug or alcohol increases the risk. As the quantity and frequency of use increases, a social drinker or recreational drug user starts to move toward addiction. Delaying the first use of drugs or alcohol can dramatically cut the risk.
“We know that, regardless of genetics, people who start using drugs or drinking before the age of 15 are roughly four times as likely to have an addictive disorder,” says Teitelbaum. “The younger the age, the greater the likelihood of a problem.”
The three most common substance addictions among adolescents and college-age kids are smoking, alcohol and marijuana, according to Ruben Baler, Ph.D., neuroscientist with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
“We know that the brain is a work in progress all the way through your early 20s, so it’s very actively developing,” says Baler. He compares the young developing brain to programming a computer. “What drugs do is they scramble the letters in the keyboard during the actual programming of the computer. That’s why the kind of experiences we have during this period are so critical.”
With kids as young as 5 or 6, the biggest danger is inhalants. Common household items are often used as inhalants, including glue, permanent markers, nail polish remover, gasoline, cleaning solvents, butane cigarette lighters and propellants used in commercial food or cleaning products. They can cause serious brain damage and even death when intentionally inhaled. Because these items are found in practically every home, parents need to educate their children as early as possible about the danger of inhalants. Baler also advises parents to closely monitor their children’s online activity, where they can easily learn how to use these dangerous substances to get high.
On high school and college campuses, experts have seen an alarming increase in marijuana and prescription drug use. With the legalization of marijuana in some states, the drug has become widely available, and its inherent dangers have been drowned out by the voices of politicians and recreational users, says Teitelbaum.
Use of ADHD drugs, such as Ritalin or Adderall, are also increasing among older kids. With fierce competition on high school and college campuses, students often take these psychostimulants to improve their concentration so they can study longer and boost their grades, ignoring the risk of side effects or addiction.