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Teens report stress is biggest reason for drug, alcohol use

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The most commonly reported motivation for substance use among teens was "to feel mellow, calm, or relaxed" (73%), a new survey found. Photo by Adobe Stock/HealthDay News

American teenagers cite stress as the leading reason they might get drunk or high, a new report reveals.

That only underscores the need for better adolescent mental healthcare, according to the research team behind the study.

Better "access to treatment and support for mental health concerns and stress could reduce some of the reported motivations for substance use," concluded investigators from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the study, a team led by CDC researcher Sarah Connolly looked at 2014-2020 data on over 9,500 people ages 13 to 18, all of who were being treated for a substance use disorder.

Teens were using a myriad of substances, including alcohol, marijuana, prescription painkillers (often opioids), prescription stimulants (for example, Ritalin), or prescription sedatives (such as Valium or Xanax).

The teens were also asked why they thought they were using or abusing substances.

Easing stress in their lives was the leading factor cited.

"The most commonly reported motivation for substance use was "to feel mellow, calm, or relaxed" (73%), with other stress-related motivations among the top reasons, including "to stop worrying about a problem or to forget bad memories" (44%) and "to help with depression or anxiety" (40%)," Connolly's team reported.

Stress relief wasn't the only motivator, of course: Half of the teens reported using substances "to have fun or experiment." This reason for using substances was more often cited for alcohol or nonprescription drug use than it was for the use of marijuana or other drugs.

Substance abuse with the aim of easing stress was most often cited for marijuana (76% of teens), prescription pain meds (61%) and sedatives/tranquilizers (55%), the study found.

Half of the teens surveyed said they often used drugs or alcohol alone, but 81% said they also used them with friends, a boyfriend or girlfriend (24%), or "anyone who has drugs" (23%).

According to the researchers, prior data has long shown that "anxiety and experiencing traumatic life events have been associated with substance use in adolescents."

But with burgeoning rates of substance abuse and related overdoses, the consequences of turning to substances to ease stress can be tragic.

"Harm reduction education specifically tailored to adolescents has the potential to discourage using substances while alone and teach how to recognize and respond to an overdose in others," the team said.

Such interventions might "prevent overdoses that occur when adolescents use drugs with friends from becoming fatal," they added.

If you or a loved one is stressed by a mental health crisis, confidential 24/7 help is on hand at the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

The findings were published in the Friday issue of the CDC journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

More information

There's tips to identifying stress in your teen at the American Psychological Association.

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