Youth Culture Window

Losing Control

Dynamic ImageWhen Stephen was a sophomore, he had a 4.4 GPA, was active in his church, and excelled in almost everything he put his mind to.

Last week, his parents just dropped him off at a mental health facility where he will stay for a minimum of three months. You’d recognize the name of the place if I told you, because it’s not another rehab facility—Stephen has already been to three of those—this place is for people who are literally losing their mind.

Wiping tears from their cheeks, his parents watched him disappear down the baby blue hallway through a locked gate. As he vanished out of site, his mother burst into tears. “What did we do wrong?”

Stephen never wanted to be an addict. He’s just another product of all the hype that marijuana is “no big deal.” That’s what Stephen used to argue, those first couple years, but marijuana turned into prescription meds, and soon Stephen would pump anything into his body that he could get his hands on.

Teenagers have been using and abusing alcohol, marijuana and controlled substances of various kinds for many generations now. Sadly, you don’t have to look far to find young people who’ve had their lives devastated by these toxic tyrants. These young people are in our neighborhoods, our schools, our churches, and our families. Most parents and youth workers in America know at least one young person who’s surrendered far too much control of their life to these vicious substances.

If these adults want to help teenagers regain control, they’re going to need an honest assessment of where kids stand right now. Here’s that assessment of controlled substances – by classification – and a few ideas on how to put them in check.

The Current Drug of Choice
The Center for Disease Control has some good news when it comes to teen drinking. Their recent reports claim that the number of teenagers who drink and drive has decreased by 54% since 1991. In 2011, just 10.3% of high school students (age 16+) admitted to driving under the influence of alcohol, which is down from 22.3% in 1991. (Researchers at the CDC credit drinking age laws, zero-tolerance enforcement, and graduated drivers’ licenses as part of the reason behind the encouraging findings.) Further, the CDC reported that tobacco use amongst teens continues to decline even though the decline has slowed down a bit.

Ummm…that’s probably the extent of good news we have for you.

That’s because the CDC’s findings on marijuana use amongst teens tell a completely different story. I (Jonathan) wrote about the results of these findings in my blog the week they were released, comparing them to similar studies (3 Costly Teenage Risky Behaviors). This national study of 15,000 high school kids discovered that marijuana is more popular with teens than cigarettes. 18% of the students admitted to smoking a cigarette in the past month while 23% admitted to smoking a joint in the past month. In their Monitoring the Future report, the University of Michigan agrees that alcohol use has dropped to “historic lows,” but also agrees that marijuana use rose again in 2011. While the increase wasn’t a huge statistical jump over 2010’s findings, it was the fourth straight year marijuana use grew. The study also found that daily marijuana use was at a 30-year high (no pun intended).

Those numbers alone are disconcerting, but add on the fact that a study by Liberty Mutual Insurance found that 19% (1-in-5) of teenagers have driven a car while high is downright terrifying. And don’t hold your breath for this to get better very quickly. The same study found that 36% of those high-driving teens believe marijuana doesn’t distract them from driving safely.

Finally, reports from the Archives of General Psychiatry have highlighted a link between “early use” and extended “abuse.” According to their interviews with over 10,000 teenagers, almost 4 out of 5 had tried alcohol as a teen and roughly 15% of them were abusing it by the age of 18. Likewise, 16% of the teenagers were abusing drugs by 18. Researchers from Yale University tend to agree: they claim that teenagers who smoke and/or drink are two to three times more likely to abuse prescription painkillers later on in life. They estimate the number of young adults abusing meds to be about 3.5 million “and growing.”

But unlike me, they’re not getting their pills from Walgreens.

Prescription Drugs and Controlled Substances
Stories of kids breaking into their parents’ medicine (and liquor) cabinet abound. While most of us assume that reality, we may not know how rampant the risky practice has become. Research by the University of Colorado found that the abuse of prescription painkillers such as vicodin, valium, and oxycontin by the current generation of young people is up 40% over their earlier counterparts. Furthermore,


    • between 2004 and 2009, emergency department visits for painkiller abuse increased 129%.


    • between 1997 and 2007, treatment for addiction to prescription pills increased more than 500%.


  • from the 90s to 2007, accidental overdoses leading to death have increased threefold.

In fact, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2011 that more people died from overdoses than car accidents, “and drugs like oxycontin, vicodin and xanax kill more people than heroin or cocaine combined.”

Kids’ abuse of prescription drugs is fueled in part simply by the number of prescriptions being doled out by doctors these days; roughly 40 million painkillers were prescribed in 1991, but almost 180 million were prescribed in 2007. That means there are lots of pills floating around out there, every day.

But many teenagers and young people have found that a long-lasting addiction to prescription painkillers is hard to keep due to the incredible cost of these drugs. As a result, too many have turned to alternatives, such as the more affordable heroin. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration claim that the number of young people dying from heroin overdose has “skyrocketed”recently. In 1999, the number of heroin-related fatalities amongst young people ages 15-24 was 198; in 2009, that same number had swelled to 510. Their studies also show that treatment for heroin abuse has increased by about 80%.

And if the current economy crunches kids’ finances even more tightly, teens can still get their fix from the cleaning aisle or spice rack of any local supermarket.

Monkey See, Monkey Do
When these kinds of numbers get tossed around, many people start looking for a source…or a scapegoat. Neither are too hard to find. Take media for example; according to this info-graphic by Rehab Today, 53% of Billboard’s top music contains some sort of reference to tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, or “other substance.” Teenagers who listen to this music – which is many of them – hear roughly 35 references to these substances every hour. Unsurprisingly, rap music contains the most references per song (86%).

Now I know why Amy Winehouse sang about her need for rehab….

But don’t forget about the power of social media…or the friends found there. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University released their 17th Annual National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse and reported that 86% of high school students say “some classmates are drugging, drinking, and smoking during the school day.” Even more worrisome is their finding that claims 44% of the same high school students know a peer who sells drugs at their school. Marijuana and prescription drugs were the most prevalent, but cocaine and ecstasy were also represented.

Interestingly, many of these kids – yes, kids – point an accusatory finger at social media sites like Facebook, YouTube, and MySpace. A full 75% of 12 to 17-year olds say they’ve seen online photos of friends and acquaintances using alcohol and/or marijuana on the sites, and 47% of the same group thinks the pictures make those teens appear to be “having a good time.”

Too soon, they’ll discover that appearances can be deceiving.

Taking Back Control
Parents and youth workers need not feel paralyzed when helping young people take back control. There are a number of moves that loving adults can make to help ensure young people steer clear of alcohol and other controlled substances. Here are a few.


  1. Limit your assumptions. Once upon a time, it was “those other kids” who were in danger of drug and alcohol abuse. Neglected kids, or kids with an incarcerated parent (or two), or kids from the inner city were deemed most likely to fall victim to drug and alcohol abuse. That’s not necessarily the case anymore. One point many of the above reports stress is that kids from vastly different backgrounds and bios can struggle with this problem. It might be kids from the suburbs, or kids with good grades who are under lots of academic stress. The best strategy is to drop any assumptions you might have and find out for sure. Be courageous enough to break the silence with great questions.
  2. Make your expectations known. Here’s a direct quote from the Columbia University report (linked above): “Parental expectations, particularly expressing strong disapproval of teen substance use, can be a decisive factor in a teen’s decision to drink alcohol, use drugs or smoke tobacco.” Teens who believe their parents would not be upset to find out they’re using alcohol, tobacco, or marijuana are 8.5 times more likely to approve of their own marijuana use, 10 times more likely to approve of their own drinking, and 9 times more likely to approve of their own cigarette smoking. The lesson is simple: let them know where you stand. It can’t hurt anything.
  3. Seek professional help as needed. This isn’t just a lawsuit-avoidance statement our attorneys make us include at the end of our articles. We really believe some teens need extra help. Whereas the first two points above deal with prevention, this one deals directly with treatment. Many of the controlled substances available to young people today are powerful enough to alter their chemical balances. Prayer is great, so do it. In fact, start with it! Friendship is wonderful, as well. But given the links between alcohol/drug use and other risky behaviors, don’t take any unnecessary chances. Get kids the help they need as soon as possible.

The reality of alcohol and controlled substances will never go away. They will always be a hurdle for young people to face. Make sure they don’t face this hurdle alone. Surrendering control is too costly.

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Jonathan McKee

Jonathan McKee is the author of over twenty books including the brand new The Guy's Guide to FOUR BATTLES Every Young Man Must Face; The Teen’s Guide to Social Media & Mobile Devices; If I Had a Parenting Do Over; and the Amazon Best Seller - The Guy's Guide to God, Girls and the Phone in Your Pocket. He speaks to parents and leaders worldwide, all while providing free resources for parents on his website Jonathan, his wife Lori, and their three kids live in California.

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