Anxiety and its Link to Substance Abuse in Adolescents

We live in a fast-paced and often stressful society. This can affect everyone, adults and kids alike, so it is not surprising that many people are struggling with anxiety, many for the first time in their lives. There are numerous legitimate reasons why adolescents in particular might be worried (or flat-out scared) about life, including school shootings, terrorism, and now the Coronavirus Global Pandemic. And then there are the more personal stressors that can leave many teens and young adults anxious, such as enormous pressure to perform at school and extra-curricular activities like sports and performance arts.

The physical symptoms of anxiety in adolescents, such as chronic headaches, stomach aches, or even panic attacks, are often the impetus for seeking help. Also, pediatricians are prescribing antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications to younger and younger children who struggle to function in everyday life. The American College Health Association surveyed college students and discovered that anxiety rates jumped in the last few years – from 50 percent in 2011 to 62 percent in 2016. Hospital admissions for suicidal adolescents have also doubled in the last 10 years, which reflects what educators observe to be a significant increase in “severely anxious students[1].”

The reason for this rise in anxiety in adolescents cannot be attributed to any single contributor; it is, rather, a confluence of factors. This is a “Post-9/11 Generation” that has never known a world without the constant threat of terrorism and school shootings, so it is no wonder that they are growing up not knowing the greater sense of safety that many in previous generations enjoyed. Couple this with the omnipresence of technology, notably social media, and the round-the-clock opportunity for comparison to others or bullying by peers, and you have a perfect storm in which anxiety can thrive[2].

The constant barrage of information about everything from climate change to racism is inescapable, and it can be one of the factors that lead many teens towards behaviors such as substance abuse, eating disorders, and self-harm. They are literally desperate for relief. It also appears that many adolescents lack the emotional tools to manage difficult feelings such as sadness and fear. There is an underlying belief among many contemporary adolescents that a person’s natural state should be happiness, and when it is not, they perceive that something is wrong. This false assumption, in and of itself, can contribute to feelings of anxiety.

The link between poor mental health and substance abuse is well-established. In fact, research states that, “[p]sychiatric comorbidity is the rule rather than the exception in adolescents diagnosed with substance use disorders (SUD)” – in fact, nearly 80 percent have both a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety as well as a drug or alcohol addiction[3]. How a teen comes to have both disorders is something of a chicken-or-egg question. Many times the anxiety exists first, and the substance abuse problem follows as the young person tries to self-medicate the negative effects of the mood disorder. That is, they try to dull the emotional pain brought on by their mental health disorder with drugs or alcohol. Other times, an adolescent is genetically predisposed to substance abuse, and regular use contributes to feeling anxious[4].

To help our young people, we need to teach them how to manage negative emotions and readjust the belief that not feeling happy or positive all the time signals dysfunction in some way. We need to put technology in its rightful place as a tool that we control rather than the other way around by putting healthy limits on its use. And we need to ensure that we are fostering supportive communities in which we talk to each other face to face, work together toward interaction and compassion, and empower our kids (and us) to combat feelings of helplessness and anxiety.

Given the serious intersection of mental health and substance use disorders, it is also essential to properly diagnose and treat both issues together, especially because only about 15 percent of those with comorbid disorders actually receive the treatment they need. Properly informed treatment carries even greater weight in these cases since those who suffer from them are more likely to respond poorly to treatment, drop out earlier from treatment, or relapse sooner. Finding competent clinicians well-versed in recognizing, properly diagnosing, and concurrently treating dual diagnoses is therefore essential to the long-term health and recovery of an adolescent[5].

For more information or help in navigating your addiction treatment and recovery options, contact us here, call 800-335-0316 or email today.



[1] Denizet-Lewis, B., The New York Times. (2017). Why Are More American Teenagers Than Every Suffering From Severe Anxiety? Accessed 23/10/2020

[2] Schrobsdorff, S., Time. (2016). Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright. Accessed 23/10/2020

[3] Kaminer, Y., Connor, D.F., & Curry, J.F. (2007). Comorbid Adolescent Substance Use and Major Depressive Disorders: A Review. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 4(12), 32–43. Accessed 23/10/2020

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

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