Preventing Illicit and Nonmedical Drug Use

Illicit and nonmedical drug use — associated with a decline in educational achievement and many negative health conditions, including overdose-related deaths — has been on the rise among young adults aged 18 to 25. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, from 2007 to 2017, the number of adolescents and young adults (aged 15 to 24) who died from illicit or prescription drug overdose increased by 50%. Cannabis, cocaine, and stimulants are among the most commonly reported illicit drugs. Many such drugs contribute to psychological and neurocognitive harm when adolescents who use them grow into midlife adulthood.

Despite the potential harm of these illicit and nonmedical drugs, more and more young people have been normalizing their use. The legalization of recreational marijuana in many states has also led to a decrease in perceived harmfulness. During the pandemic, overdose deaths of teenagers who used illicit drugs through online sales have made headlines. Parents and educators must continue to raise awareness among young people with evidence-based data about the overwhelming negative impact of these substances.

Identifying Illicit and Nonmedical Drug Use Among Young People

The recovery community defines illicit drug use as misusing illegally purchased or prescription medications in ways other than instructed. The most commonly misused prescription drugs are opioids, pain relievers, depressants, and stimulants, all of which are easily accessible.

Young people often obtain illicit and nonmedical drugs from peers, friends, or even family members. Many are ignorant about the illegality of purchasing or distributing drugs in this way. The high accessibility makes illicit drugs rampant among youth. For example, 15% of high school students in the U.S. reported having ever used illicit drugs. When compounded with other risk factors, such as poor parental monitoring, family history of substance use, mental health issues, and lack of school connectedness, the risk for youth in using illicit drugs can be very high and alarming.

Parent Engagement Is Paramount in Prevention

It is commonly observed that when parents are engaged in their children’s school activities, these children tend to get better grades and thrive socially. Parent engagement can also motivate children to avoid unhealthy behaviors even when faced with peer pressure to do so. However, all parents need some coaching when it comes to fully support their children. They need information and skills to make effective two-way communication with children. Parents themselves need to model a healthy lifestyle and active community involvement.

Parents of teens and adolescents especially need some coaching on how to best support their emotional development. This is a time when mental and sexual health, bullying, and substance use all appear on the horizon. Parents are sometimes late to catch the early warning signs of risky behavior. This is when non-confrontational, mutually agreed-on parental monitoring is necessary. Parents need to spell out their intentions for monitoring their children’s whereabouts and social circle. Research has shown again and again that teens who believe their parents disapprove of risky behaviors, such as skipping school, smoking, drinking, or sexual experimentations, are less likely to choose those behaviors.

Parents need to know the importance of plugging their teens into a network of health care, educational, and recovery support. For example, teens can benefit from regular one-on-one meetings with health care providers. They should be encouraged to pay more attention to their own health needs, giving them a sense of agency in weighing health choices. Parents can support and prepare them to make this transition. Seeing a health care provider regularly can build a consistent support system in a young person’s life.

Educators and Health Care Providers Need to Screen with Due Diligence 

Usually, teens and adolescents feel more connected with their school institutions when educators and staff care about them as individuals. This sense of connection can help students succeed academically and make healthy choices. For educators and school staff, the goal to increase connectedness with students should guide how they prevent risky behavior among students, such as illicit drug use.

Educators and school staff should be able to connect with families and know about their unique and diverse situations, which might impact a child’s emotional and academic development. For example, every school has students who are at increased risk of feeling socially isolated from others. This might be due to disability, divorce, financial stress, or other family circumstances. Fostering a bully-free and inclusive school atmosphere is crucial for these students and for the general morale in a school. The best prevention against unhealthy peer behavior is to build up a strong, cohesive, and healthy support system for every student. 

Are you worried about your teen child getting access to illicit drugs through their friends? Do you know how to best prevent illicit and nonmedical drug use from happening? Given the prevalence of illicit drugs in an average American teenager's social life, it takes a strong coalition of parents, educators, and health care professionals to protect more young people from the harm of this epidemic. You can learn more about prevention and treatment to prepare for the worst scenario. A professional interventionist can coach you and other parents in your community to best prepare and intervene as soon as early signs are detected. At South Florida Intervention, our professionally trained interventionists have helped many parents and families. We can connect you with trusted health professionals who have plenty of experience in this area. We also offer detailed case management and can provide a sober escort service for people who are in early sobriety. Call us at (202) 390-2273.