Hope and concern: Changing the conversation about youth substance use
February 1, 2019
Ninety percent of addictions start with use in the teenage years. With all the challenges present — the normalization of adult marijuana use, the growing public health crisis of opioid addiction and overdose, and the marketing of vaping products to youth, to name a few — there is a great need for youth prevention efforts.
The Rise Above Colorado Youth Survey confirms how important it is to equip them with support and information to help them navigate the state's changing landscape of drug and alcohol use.
Our organization commissioned the newly released survey of more than 600 youth from around the state with support from a grant through the Colorado Department of Human Services' Office of Behavioral Health.
The data, professionally collected by Healthcare Research in 2018, provide both cause for hope and concern — and important messages for parents and other adults who interact with youth.
A key finding is that, when it comes to teen substance use, not everyone's doing it. Whether we're talking about alcohol, marijuana, prescriptions drugs or meth, the survey revealed that vast majority of Colorado youth are not currently using these substances.
That finding often goes against the assumptions of adults and youth. If we can correct those misperceptions, we have a great opportunity to reduce and prevent youth substance use in our state.
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While the survey shows that nine of 10 high school youth think more of their peers use marijuana than is actually the case, middle school youth are more accurately perceiving substance use within their age group.
Correcting perceptions among middle schoolers is especially important to ensure that this age group has the information and tools necessary to make healthy decisions before they transition to high school, a period when, the survey shows, they experience increases in access, curiosity and use of substances. Indeed, the majority of youth that have tried alcohol or marijuana reported that they started before the age of 15.
So how do we help as adults?
Having a parent or trusted adult with whom to talk about drugs and alcohol is an important protective factor for youth. For example, the survey found that youth reported increased discussions about prescription pain relievers and stimulants and that coincided with a greater perception of the risk presented by the misuse of these drugs and a decreased curiosity to try them.
Although we saw an increase in family conversations about prescription drugs since the previous survey in 2016, still only half of youth respondents reported having these discussions. In comparison, eight of 10 have talked with an adult about alcohol and marijuana. All of these numbers can and should be higher.
The challenge for many adults is how to open that line of communication.
There are helpful, age-appropriate resources about how to start these conversations from Speak Now Colorado. SpeakNowColorado.org notes that talking with kids and "being honest and involved has a big influence on your children, even if it seems like they're not listening."
The website offers practical tips in English and Spanish to help facilitate these conversations for youth in different age groups, ranging from age 9 through 20.
We know that youth benefit from:
- Accurate, science-based information about the risks of using substances during teenage years.
- Opportunities to learn social-emotional skills, ranging from responsible decision-making to relationship skills.
- Developing the confidence and tools to stand up to peer pressure and then to model that through peer education and leadership.
While teens face many challenges, adolescence is also a period of great growth and opportunity. Your words can make a positive impact for the young people on that journey.
Kent MacLennan is executive director of Rise Above Colorado, a statewide nonprofit organization that empowers teens to live free of drug misuse and addiction.