Dec 18 - -

Working With Young People Who Use Drugs

Keep Them Alive While They Figure It Out.  And since “Just Say No” never works, we need to lose the hysteria; learn to listen, talk reasonably, and understand.

Keeping it Real: The Realities of Youth Development 

Exploration, experimentation, and risk-taking are all part of growing up.  They are a necessary part of finding one’s identity.  So is rebellion, for many.  Getting high, by drug use or hair-raising experiences, is a a part of it. Many activities are risky, but…you wouldn’t prevent a kid from getting a driver license, skiing, riding BMX, playing football or hockey, would you?  Yes, there are parents who do prohibit some  of those activities, and fair enough. How about sex? Hormones are raging and impulse control is a long way from being a finished product.  We know abstinence usually doesn’t work so we teach young people to be safe. Then there are the everyday scary things that youth do: Asking someone out on a date, coming out to parents and friends as gay or transgender, being the “odd one out”, which just means different from other people in any number ways.

How Does our Society Impact Youth Drug Use?

In the US we use some drugs a lot, and demonize others.  Demonization, criminalization, and stigma make drug use more dangerous – the social controls that influence safe use of legal drugs are missing for illegal drugs.  This leads to fear, secrecy and the harms that go along with prohibition, such as fear of prosecution/arrest that keeps people from calling 911 when friends are overdosing on opioid drugs or alcohol binges and including higher rates of drug misuse.

Drug education in the form of D.A.R.E.’s Just Say No message makes things worse.  It is entirely ineffective, not least because it is taught by police officers. The mere fact of their presence communicates “if you want to do it, better hide it.” The information is inaccurate, and young people know it. And many communities have learned that they have nothing to gain and everything to lose from contact with the police.

Stress is a huge contributing factor to the development of drug problems, and stress comes from many sources.  Environmental stressors like poverty, food insecurity, institutional and personal racism, and hopelessness about the future in our increasingly unstable “gig economy” make escapism into drug use attractive (not to mention a viable source of income).  Personal and interpersonal stress—being different—sexual orientation, size, physical ability, emotional fragility or mental health issues—all can lead to being ostracized or bullied, creating a life full of terror. And then there is the trauma of family or community violence that so many children experience.

The failure of the foster care system is shocking:  50% of foster youth nationwide will not graduate high school. Only 20% will enroll in college. Less than half of youth who leave foster care are stably employed two years later, and 50% experience homelessness or housing instability.*

What Happens As Young People Mature?

In relation to substance use, it’s called “maturing out”.  Research has consistently shown that most drug use initiated in adolescence and early adulthood steadily decreases by one’s late 20’s. It’s rare for a person to develop a new drug problem in their 30’s. Alcohol is an exception, however.  Drinking often starts earlier and, once a significant problem has developed, tends to be less responsive to age.  This is probably because alcohol is legal and is integrated into many regular life activities—it appears to be functional…until, of course, it’s not.  Several factors are at play in maturing out:

  • Role incompatibility is at the heart of the process that leads to maturing out. According to this research, involvement in adult roles—such as marriage or parenthood—puts the drug user in a situation in which consumption is not compatible with the demands of those responsibilities.
  • Social control: Other people in one’s social environment can exert an influence on the drug user’s behavior to reduce or eliminate consumption.
  • On the other hand, untreated mental health problemsput youth at risk of continuing drug use.

How does Harm Reduction Help?

Get close: do not exclude or judge.  Instead, create a warm and welcoming environment where a young person feels comfortable to open up.
Normalize: Humans have used drugs/gotten high as long as there have been humans.  Intoxication isn’t a problem; overintoxication as a way of coping with stress is.
Understand: People use drugs for reasons. Understand each young person’s relationship with drugs in the context of their life.
Validate: Maybe drugs aren’t the problem; maybe they are the solution to a much bigger problem.

What’s A Parent To Do?  What Should  We as a Society Do?

Include youth in school, sports, and social activities rather than exclude them as punishment for drug use.
Encourage youth exploration of career options and other lifestyle choices even when they seem uninterested in pursuing thoughts of the future.
Take care of their mental health needs. Anxious, depressed, or traumatized youth are less likely to mature out of problematic drug use.
Be open to the wide variety of drug using experiences.  Not all use is misuse. Learn to distinguish between what is and what isn’t, and accept that intoxication is a normal part of human experience.


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