Why Do Some Young People Engage in Drugs While Others Do Not?

The epidemic of drug addiction among young people is not driven by one single cause, but a combination of risk factors. This explains why some young people are more vulnerable than others when it comes to substance use. When addictive patterns develop among youth, some also have a higher chance of recovery than others, depending on the same risk factors.

Developmental Vulnerability of the Brain 

Young people aged between 15 and 25 are at a developmentally significant phase when it comes to their brain development. During this time, the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is responsible for emotional regulation, rational judgment, and self-control is at a fluid state, making them at a higher risk of irrational decision-making.

Also due to the same developmental reason, exposure to substances during this time can powerfully reshape the brain structures (reward circuitry) which maintain the association between drugs and pleasure, leading to a higher risk of addiction. Nevertheless, not every young person who takes drugs will become addicted. This is because addiction is also determined by a person’s genetic makeup and a range of other environmental factors.

Genetic and Environmental Factors

Having a close family member who is addicted to substances can be an indicator of genetic risk. Family history of mental illness also increases the risk of mental health problems in youth, putting them at a higher risk for drug addiction.

External environmental factors mostly come from social learning experiences with friends who use drugs or alcohol. Young people often succumb to peer pressure and the false narrative that using drugs is only another form of entertainment and one has the power to quit. Some young people with poor socialization skills may use drugs as a “lubricant” to facilitate socializing.

The biggest environmental risk factor is the availability of drugs in a young person’s immediate surroundings, whether it is home, school, or within their circle of friends. Alarming examples of access to illicit drugs include online sales or parents' prescription drugs at home. Both of these can happen under situations of low parental supervision.

Emotional and Mental Health

Apart from these most common risk factors, it is important to add that young people’s emotional and mental health also matter. Sometimes, young people begin experimenting with drugs and alcohol simply because they feel bored. Boredom can also be an intense trigger for young people who are going through treatment.

Low self-esteem is another root cause of many co-occurring mental health issues with addiction. Take young girls, for example. Many are body-conscious in the social media era where the “perfect” body image can lead to a body-shaming experience. Some young girls believe that drugs can be a quick way to lose weight. The obsession with keeping a certain body image has become a mental illness. As a result, eating disorders often co-occur with drug addiction.

Teaching Holistic, Healthy Lifestyles to Young People

Because of these above-mentioned risk factors, it is crucial and even life-defining to nurture young people in embracing a holistic and healthy lifestyle. This is especially true for young people who have high-risk factors, such as having a parent with addiction or struggling with a mental health issue.

A holistic lifestyle balances internal and external wellness. Parents and educators should devote more attention to children’s emotional and mental health before they enter puberty. They should be encouraged to explore hobbies and develop personal interests that are non-addictive, both at home and in school. There should be opportunities for them to share ideas and express emotions without fear. Young people should be coached on how to deal with stress in a healthy way.

Parents and educators should raise social wellbeing awareness as early as possible. Young people’s desire to fit in and feel good about themselves should be acknowledged and expressed. Given the high accessibility of drugs among young people’s social groups, there should be more education on the long-term developmental impact of drugs, as well as how to prevent and treat addiction.

The best prevention method is to equip young people with the science and facts about drugs and addiction, not just with slogans like “Just Say No.” For example, as marijuana legalization sweeps across the nation, young people should be educated that today’s marijuana isn’t the same strength as decades ago.

Holistic Approach in Treating Young People 

Parents and recovery specialists need to dialogue with each other to reduce the stigma of drug addiction while proactively prioritizing prevention and treatment. A holistic approach to treating young people should include the medical/biological, social, and emotional aspects of a young person. Treatment programs should also be age-specific and gender-specific to cater to different needs.

In particular, mental health issues among young people should be prioritized as having the same importance as physical health problems. This requires parents and medical providers to become proactive in screening and treating the issues before young people take matters into their own hands by resorting to harmful drugs.

Young people today are exposed to the danger of high access to substances in the community. Not every young person is at equal risk when it comes to developing substance addiction, though. What puts certain people at a higher risk? Addiction is a complicated matter. Parents need to understand and assess the risk for their children. Working with a professional interventionist can get you on the fast track for learning about these topics. At South Florida Intervention, our professionally-trained interventionists have helped many teens and young adults succeed in recovery. We know how to work with young people and their families. We also help your loved ones connect with a strong and supportive recovery community, including other trusted health experts. At South Florida Intervention, we offer a range of services, from recovery coaching and parent coaching to sober escort and case management. We are here to help. Call us today at (202) 390-2273 to learn more.