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School Stress and Substance Use – What’s the Connection

School Stress and Substance Use – What’s the Connection

By Helen Varvi, M. Ed., CPS

Although we tell teens that it’s the best time of their lives, adolescence is a very stressful time for many young people.

There are many research studies that link stress in teens with high risk behaviors, aggression, mental illness such as depression and substance use. A study by the Partnership for a Drug Free America showed that 73 percent of teens surveyed reported that the top reason for their drug use was to deal with pressures and stress – primarily from school.   Past studies seemed to show that teens used drugs more to “have fun” or to “look cool”.   But today’s teens are more likely to cite stress as a motivator for substance use as they look to drugs to solve their problems. Feeling good about themselves and the “cool” factor follow closely behind as reasons for use.

This trend is supported by the brain research being conducted at the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA) which indicates that people exposed to stress are more likely to abuse alcohol or other drugs, or to relapse into past drug addiction. For a long time it has been known that all of our body systems are involved in responding to stress – nervous, endocrine, immune and cardiovascular systems all kick in when we are stressed out. The hormone that initiates the body’s response to stress is found throughout the brain. Drugs of abuse can also stimulate the release of this hormone. Stress can cause changes in the brain like those caused by addictive drugs, suggesting that some people who experience stress may be more vulnerable and at risk for substance abuse.

This is important for educators and parents to understand because most adults greatly underestimate the impact of stress on teens. Additional research by the Partnership for a Drug- Free America, showed that while almost 3 in 4 teens reported pressures and stress of school as a reason for their substance use, only seven percent of parents surveyed thought that coping with stress was a main reason for teens’ decisions to use drugs. Clearly, the connection between teen stress and substance use is severely underestimated by adults.  So here’s what teens say causes them school-related stress:

  • Studying for SAT’s
  • Balancing work and school
  • Responsibilities at home
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Getting into a good college
  • Paying for school
  • Falling short of expectations
  • Fitting in socially

On a positive note, this presents a perfect opportunity for adults working with youth to better understand what motivates today’s teens and to use this as an opportunity to offer them support and guidance for dealing with pressures and stress in a healthy, drug-free way. While overall substance use has been declining among teens, their perceived risk of the dangers and consequences of drug use has also declined. Specifically teens believe that it is safer to abuse a prescription drug than it is to use illegal drugs and don’t give a second though to using them to help them perform better academically or in sports. Risks and consequences versus any perceived benefits should be regularly addressed with youth. The bottom line is that if teen stress is not dealt with properly, the chances of them engaging in 'worsening' behavior increases. 

In addition, among the recommendations suggested by the Partnership for a Drug Free America is for adults to remind youth that they are valued and admired for who they are, not for their grades and achievements. School stress and the related risks for substance use can be decreased if we remember the importance of social-emotional learning in a school setting and make it a point to foster individual student relationships so that each student’s talents and abilities can be discovered and nurtured in addition to their academic performance.

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Comments 1

Guest - Annmarie Shafer on Monday, 30 March 2015 11:30

Really great article, Helen! Sometimes, parents, teachers and guardians may view a young person's health and wellness in respect to "physical appearances." We know, as adults, that beneath OUR outward facing surface can be an inner feeling of stress, strife, deadlines and worries just about bubbling over that we learn to hide and suppress. Kids can hide that pretty well too and, if they are getting the messages that alcohol and other drugs soothe those issues (through media, movies and adults)....well, perhaps they start to believe there is relief to be had in those substances. Honest conversations that adult mentors can have with young people about how to deal with stress in a healthy manner are priceless in today's fast-paced world. Thank you for the excellent reminder!

Really great article, Helen! Sometimes, parents, teachers and guardians may view a young person's health and wellness in respect to "physical appearances." We know, as adults, that beneath OUR outward facing surface can be an inner feeling of stress, strife, deadlines and worries just about bubbling over that we learn to hide and suppress. Kids can hide that pretty well too and, if they are getting the messages that alcohol and other drugs soothe those issues (through media, movies and adults)....well, perhaps they start to believe there is relief to be had in those substances. Honest conversations that adult mentors can have with young people about how to deal with stress in a healthy manner are priceless in today's fast-paced world. Thank you for the excellent reminder!
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