Study Reveals Substance Abuse Among Teens with Mental Health Issues

A new study from the University of Sydney's Brain and Mind Research Institute shows striking levels of substance use among teens seeking mental health care, with one in 10 mentally ill teens reporting frequent use of alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana. This pattern of substance use becomes more common as teens age, and likely heightens risk of poor physical and mental health outcomes, the study reports.
In a University of Sydney news release, lead researcher Dr. Daniel Hermens said,

“Traditionally there have been mental health services, and substance abuse services, but both have been quite separate. Our study shows that we need to integrate mental health interventions with substance use interventions in order to help at-risk young people.
“There is a lot of evidence for the co-morbidity of mental health problems and substance misuse. More people have both mental health and substance use problems than either alone—in other words, it's the rule rather than the exception."

Published in BMJ Open, the study used self-reported data from more than 2,000 people aged 12-30 years seeking mental health care. Overall, substance use rates increased with age across groups, broken into age bands of 12-17, 18-19, and 20-30 year-olds.

From youngest to oldest age group, daily nicotine use rose from 23% to 41%, while rates for use at least weekly of marijuana grew from 7% to 18% and of alcohol from 12% to 45%.
The youngest group (12–17 years) was twice as likely to report weekly alcohol use compared to their counterparts in the general population (10.3% vs. 5.1%), and the age of onset for all three substances was approximately 15 years.
According to the authors, studies indicate that early-onset mental disorders are linked to increased risk for substance misuse, and, likewise, early substance misuse is linked to increased risk for developing a mental illness. Both are associated with adverse health effects, particularly when exhibited in teens, and even premature death. This emphasizes just how crucial the need to address the issue for this vulnerable population.
From their findings, the researchers draw succinct conclusions, which also highlight teens:

Frequent use of alcohol, nicotine or cannabis in young people seeking mental healthcare is common. Given the restricted legal access, the patterns of use in those aged 12–17 years are particularly notable. Reductions in substance use needs to be prioritised within services for at-risk young people.

Indeed, as the authors write, “there is an urgent need to establish an early intervention agenda for these individuals.” For the complex situations of young people with comorbid mental health and substance-use problems, these findings suggest that the most effective approach is one integrating these intertwined issues.

Gabrielle Nygaard is a Digital and Social Media Intern at Prichard Communications, where she assists on several accounts, including Reclaiming Futures. She is a student at Linfield College studying Mass Communication and Japanese. She is an Oregon native and health enthusiast.
 *Photo at top by Flickr user malloreigh

Updated: February 08 2018