Did you know that the human brain is still developing in a person’s twenties? In fact, it does not fully mature until about age 25 – around the time you finish college, start a full-time job, and begin making longer-term plans for life. Anything you do up until this point can affect your brain’s progress, for better or for worse.
The brain is especially susceptible to change during adolescence – the years most often spent in the classroom, on the field, and validating friendships. This is the time in which a person’s learning capacity is at its greatest. It is also the time in which the brain is most vulnerable to disruptions in cognitive development.
Drugs and alcohol are some of the most detrimental, yet most common disruptions in teenage brain development. They manipulate the brain’s wiring and affect the way the brain processes and retains information – including the way a teen thinks, focuses, learns, remembers, and concentrates inside and outside of school.
Despite the risky nature of early substance use, drug abuse in schools and among adolescents is an all too common occurrence. Studies show that by senior year in high school, nearly 50 percent of teens have already tried an illicit drug. And this is just the beginning. About 66 percent of teens have drank alcohol by the end of high school, too.
If you are a parent of a high schooler, or even middle schooler, there is a great chance that your child will be (or has already been) exposed to drugs and alcohol. On average, teens choose to try drugs for the first time around 13 or 14 years old – around the start of high school. As a parent and role model, educator and caregiver, you have the ability to prolong or sway your child’s desire to try drugs during his or her school years.
In fact, some of the greatest factors in keeping adolescents drug-free are parental figures themselves: having strong, positive connections with parents and having clear limits and consistent enforcement of discipline established by parents, can help reduce teens’ willingness to try drugs. Combined with open education about the reality and risks of drug abuse in adolescence, parents can truly influence their child’s choices regarding drugs.
This especially crucial today, when drug abuse in schools is prevalent and drugs in high school are increasingly easy to get. A survey from the Center on Addiction found that 60 percent or more of teens attend “drug infected” high schools, meaning drugs are used, kept, or sold right on school grounds. Even more scary, almost all high school students report that they know classmates who drink, smoke, or use drugs during the school day.
Drug abuse in schools, particularly illicit drugs in high school, has long been a topic of concern. And recent articles published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) confirm that it is still an ongoing issue. Last month, the NIDA disclosed the current frequency of non-medical opioid and heroin abuse among high school seniors. They found that, among 12th graders, 11 percent had abused prescription painkiller drugs. And among the 819 seniors that used heroin, 77 percent also abused prescription opioid drugs while in high school.
Now, this is just high school seniors. The survey’s research does not take into account the other students - high school, middle school, and college students - that also use opiate drugs. With the opiate epidemic coming at us full-force, high school seniors only make up a subset of the number of students and individuals abusing drugs.
While drug abuse in schools and among teens has declined in recent years, its predominance can still be seen across all grade levels – starting as early as middle school. The 2016 Monitoring the Future Survey, for example, shows that 5.4 percent of 8th graders have already tried an illicit drug such as marijuana or inhalants. Even more, about 23 percent of middle school students have already drank alcohol.
About 10 percent of high school sophomores have also used an illicit drug in the past year, with marijuana being the most common. Notably among these 10th graders, the perceived risk of drugs like marijuana, inhalants, crack, and Vicodin has diminished. High schoolers are seeing less and less harm in trying potentially-dangerous drugs.
This is especially true of the drug marijuana, which has been deemed a gateway to other, more threatening substances. Adolescents and young adults no longer see a great risk in smoking marijuana regularly. They are also using it more regularly. This past year, daily marijuana use exceeded cigarette use among high school sophomores and seniors.
College students are also at risk. A recent national survey found that students who attend college are at a significantly higher risk of initiating marijuana than their non-college counterparts. More than half are now likely to initiate marijuana use in school (prior to 2013, that number was around 17-22 percent). This makes sense, with marijuana becoming increasingly accessible. Especially in college, where students are transitioning to a life all on their own, trying marijuana (or any drug) may seem like the right thing to do at that time and place.
Some college and high school students are also avid users of what they might call “study drugs,” prescription stimulants that are misused by many students to help boost performance in school and enhance focus on school assignments. Most commonly known by the brand name Adderall, these stimulant pills are often conceived as harmless drugs with the “right” intent, which further downplays their skyrocketing risk for abuse and addiction.
With proper education about the dangers of early drug abuse in school years, however, your teen can come to understand that there is no right time or place to use drugs. Knowing the long-term impact drug use can have on his or her brain, as well as his or her academics, can far outweigh the “fun” your teen may have giving them a try. Reality is, substance abuse and academics are directly correlated. Not only can drugs impair teens’ cognitive development, they can also affect students’ performance in school: their ability to memorize things, concentration in the classroom, prioritization of assignments, likelihood to attend class, and even their overall IQ.
If you are concerned about your teen’s exposure to drugs in high school, middle school, or college, you are not alone. But know that now is a crucial time for your teen and his or her brain, and any suspicion of drug use should be acted on. Adolescent drug use can have a lasting impact on the brain, but early intervention, proper education, and tailored drug treatment can put your teen on the path to success. For more information about drug abuse in schools, view our “Missing the Mark” infographic or call Turnbridge young adult rehab center at 877-581-1793.