A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that teens are turning to pills, pot and alcohol to cope with mental health issues. NewsdayTV's Shari Einhorn reports.  Credit: Newsday Staff

Many teens who use alcohol and drugs are trying to ease stress and anxiety, rather than experimenting or looking for fun, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study found that among teens between the ages of 13 and 18, 73% used substances “to feel mellow, calm, or relaxed,” 44% wanted to “stop worrying about a problem or forget bad memories” and 40% did it “to help with depression or anxiety.” Half of the teens said they used alcohol or drugs “to have fun or experiment.”

Mental health experts on Long Island said they weren’t surprised by the findings but hope they will help shed light on the growing emotional problems among teens and remove some of the stigma.

“For years we said, ‘It’s peer pressure,’ ‘It’s bad choices,’ ‘It’s being a teenager,’ those are not the kids I worry about,” said Jeffrey Reynolds, president and chief executive of Garden City-based Family and Children’s Association. “I worry about the kids who use a drink or a drug and say, ‘For the first time, I feel normal,’ ‘For the first time, I don’t feel depressed, I don’t feel anxious. I can sleep.’ Because when we try to get them to stop using substances that impact their brain development, we are not wrestling the drug or drink away from them, we are wrestling away their sense of normalcy.”

Reynolds said there is a “perfect storm” in adolescent mental health: more anxiety, depression and insomnia than they have seen before. That's coupled with the fact that sometimes parents have to wait months for an appointment with a child psychologist during a time when accessing alcohol and drugs is relatively easy.

Researchers looked at 2014 to 2022 data from the National Addictions Vigilance Intervention and Prevention Program’s Comprehensive Health Assessment for Teens, a self-reported online survey.

About 60% of respondents said they had used alcohol, marijuana or other drugs within the previous 30 days. A majority of teens (84%) said they used marijuana, with alcohol being the next commonly used substance at 49%. Nonprescription drug use was noted by 21% of the teens, including methamphetamine, cough syrup and hallucinogens. Prescription drugs misuse was identified by 19% of respondents, including pain medication, sedatives or tranquilizers and stimulants.

“We’re definitely seeing an increase in teenagers who are dealing with co-occurring mental issues in addition to experimenting or having a substance use issue,” said Heather Hugelmeyer, a licensed clinical social worker and director of behavioral health at Northwell Health’s Garden City Treatment Center.

She said some of the causes include the COVID-19 pandemic, social media, phones with their nonstop flow of information, stresses of everyday life and the pressures of school.

“All of these things have led to our teenagers not developing the coping skills that perhaps they used to,” she said. “You’re dealing with a generation that can get in touch with anybody and get any piece of information in an instant and the pressure of seeing what looks like people’s perfect lives on social media, which is not reality.”

Hugelmeyer said teens who use drugs and alcohol before the age of 18 have a much higher likelihood of developing a substance use disorder in adulthood.

She said parents should not hesitate to seek professional help and be careful to manage their own stress and anxiety when dealing with children who may be reactive.

“You need to stay calm even though that’s very difficult,” she said. “And encourage kids to focus on exercise, writing, art and music. These are all great releases for them.”

Diana Castillo, of Hempstead, said it’s important to start talking to your children when they are young.

“My daughter is 21 and working on her master's [degree] and we still have conversations,” she said. “It’s hard for them to deal with stuff. It’s sad, but parents need to stay alert.”

Pat Sharp, of Garden City, said she kept her two children focused on athletics, which helped keep them away from alcohol and drugs.

“They both played Division I sports in college,” she said. “They were on a path … they knew they could lose scholarship money.”

But when her children did struggle with grief after losing loved ones to suicide and a fire, she turned to mental health professionals for guidance.

Sharp said she was surprised to hear about how many kids were turning to substances to ease their stress, depression and anxiety.

“It’s alarming,” Sharp said. Officials “need to address it more than they are addressing it now.”

With Shari Einhorn

Many teens who use alcohol and drugs are trying to ease stress and anxiety, rather than experimenting or looking for fun, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study found that among teens between the ages of 13 and 18, 73% used substances “to feel mellow, calm, or relaxed,” 44% wanted to “stop worrying about a problem or forget bad memories” and 40% did it “to help with depression or anxiety.” Half of the teens said they used alcohol or drugs “to have fun or experiment.”

Mental health experts on Long Island said they weren’t surprised by the findings but hope they will help shed light on the growing emotional problems among teens and remove some of the stigma.

“For years we said, ‘It’s peer pressure,’ ‘It’s bad choices,’ ‘It’s being a teenager,’ those are not the kids I worry about,” said Jeffrey Reynolds, president and chief executive of Garden City-based Family and Children’s Association. “I worry about the kids who use a drink or a drug and say, ‘For the first time, I feel normal,’ ‘For the first time, I don’t feel depressed, I don’t feel anxious. I can sleep.’ Because when we try to get them to stop using substances that impact their brain development, we are not wrestling the drug or drink away from them, we are wrestling away their sense of normalcy.”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • More teens are using drugs and alcohol to ease stress, depression and anxiety, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Experts said the COVID-19 pandemic, social media and almost 24/7 use of phones are some of the reasons kids are stressed and have not developed needed coping skills.
  • Parents should talk to their children regularly and encourage them to exercise, meditate and focus on reading, writing, music and art as a healthy way to release tension and anxiety and boost their mood, experts said.

Reynolds said there is a “perfect storm” in adolescent mental health: more anxiety, depression and insomnia than they have seen before. That's coupled with the fact that sometimes parents have to wait months for an appointment with a child psychologist during a time when accessing alcohol and drugs is relatively easy.

Researchers looked at 2014 to 2022 data from the National Addictions Vigilance Intervention and Prevention Program’s Comprehensive Health Assessment for Teens, a self-reported online survey.

About 60% of respondents said they had used alcohol, marijuana or other drugs within the previous 30 days. A majority of teens (84%) said they used marijuana, with alcohol being the next commonly used substance at 49%. Nonprescription drug use was noted by 21% of the teens, including methamphetamine, cough syrup and hallucinogens. Prescription drugs misuse was identified by 19% of respondents, including pain medication, sedatives or tranquilizers and stimulants.

“We’re definitely seeing an increase in teenagers who are dealing with co-occurring mental issues in addition to experimenting or having a substance use issue,” said Heather Hugelmeyer, a licensed clinical social worker and director of behavioral health at Northwell Health’s Garden City Treatment Center.

She said some of the causes include the COVID-19 pandemic, social media, phones with their nonstop flow of information, stresses of everyday life and the pressures of school.

“All of these things have led to our teenagers not developing the coping skills that perhaps they used to,” she said. “You’re dealing with a generation that can get in touch with anybody and get any piece of information in an instant and the pressure of seeing what looks like people’s perfect lives on social media, which is not reality.”

Hugelmeyer said teens who use drugs and alcohol before the age of 18 have a much higher likelihood of developing a substance use disorder in adulthood.

She said parents should not hesitate to seek professional help and be careful to manage their own stress and anxiety when dealing with children who may be reactive.

“You need to stay calm even though that’s very difficult,” she said. “And encourage kids to focus on exercise, writing, art and music. These are all great releases for them.”

Diana Castillo, of Hempstead, said it’s important to start talking to your children when they are young.

“My daughter is 21 and working on her master's [degree] and we still have conversations,” she said. “It’s hard for them to deal with stuff. It’s sad, but parents need to stay alert.”

Pat Sharp, of Garden City, said she kept her two children focused on athletics, which helped keep them away from alcohol and drugs.

“They both played Division I sports in college,” she said. “They were on a path … they knew they could lose scholarship money.”

But when her children did struggle with grief after losing loved ones to suicide and a fire, she turned to mental health professionals for guidance.

Sharp said she was surprised to hear about how many kids were turning to substances to ease their stress, depression and anxiety.

“It’s alarming,” Sharp said. Officials “need to address it more than they are addressing it now.”

With Shari Einhorn

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