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Young people’s alcohol and other drug use

Understanding alcohol and other drug use by young people

Adolescence is a time of experimentation, curiosity and exploring of identity. For some young people, substance use is seen as a solution rather than a problem. The reasons some young people may drink or use drugs include:

  • boredom or curiosity
  • because it feels good and it’s fun
  • to rebel or to take risks
  • as pain relief (emotionally and physically)
  • because their parents drink or use
  • for peer and social acceptance
  • to escape or deal with uncomfortable feelings.

According to the Australian Department of Health (2014), the most commonly used substances by young people in order of preference are:

  • analgesics (painkillers such as Panadol and Nurofen)
  • sedatives (such as sleeping tablets and Valium)
  • alcohol
  • cannabis
  • amphetamine type substances (speed, meth and ice)
  • opiates (heroin, morphine and methadone)
  • inhalants (glue and paint).

Note

Did you know:

  • 40% of the alcohol consumed by underage drinkers (age 17 or younger) is given to them by parents.
  • 18% of 16 to 24 year olds currently smoke cigarettes.
  • Daily smokers aged 12 to 17 smoke an average of 47 cigarettes a week.
  • 16 is the average age that 14 to 24 year olds smoked their first full cigarette.
  • Analgesics are the most commonly used substance, with 95% of students aged 12 to 17 having tried them.

Sources: RaisingChildren.net.au, darta.net.au.

Myths and facts about young people’s alcohol and other drug use

Myth Truth
All drug use by young people will lead to problems later as an adult. While there are very real risks associated with drug use, most young people who experiment with drugs will not go on to develop major problems in adulthood.
Drinking alcohol is a rite of passage and is safer than taking other drugs. Although widely perceived as safe and acceptable, drinking alcohol is a risky activity that leads to many more deaths and hospital admissions than illegal drugs.
Most young people use illegal drugs. The opposite is true. Most young people have never tried illegal drugs, let alone used them on a regular basis.

Source: Alcohol and Drug Foundation (2019).

How alcohol and other drugs cause harm

There is no safe level of alcohol or drug use for young people. Alcohol is the most commonly used and most damaging drug among young people.

The earlier a young person starts drinking, the greater their risk of alcohol-related problems in early adulthood and beyond. Young people who start drinking before they are 15 years old are 4 times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who don’t start drinking until they are 21.

At extreme levels, alcohol can cause unconsciousness or abnormal breathing, and alcohol poisoning as a result of binge drinking can cause death.

Making decisions

Alcohol and drugs affect a person’s ability to think quickly, make judgements, avoid dangerous situations or risky behaviour, and consider consequences. A young person under the influence of alcohol or drugs may be at higher risk of:

  • being the victim of sexual, physical or verbal violence
  • having unprotected sex
  • not being able to deal with unwanted sexual or physical advances
  • experiencing hallucinations or delusions that could lead to accidents or injury
  • getting alcohol poisoning or losing consciousness
  • being injured
  • getting into trouble with the police
  • losing control or behaving inappropriately
  • harming important relationships or damaging their reputation.

Brain development

Adolescence is an important time for brain development, with lots of new nerve connections and pathways being made. Alcohol and drugs can interrupt this process and even cause mild impairment.

In the following video, Amir Levine (psychiatrist and neuroscientist) talks about how a teenager's brain is more susceptible to drug and alcohol dependence.

The teenage brain is primed for addiction.

Alcohol and other drug use, and mental illness

  • Around 1 in 35 (2.8%) Australians aged 4 to 17 experience a depressive disorder.
  • 1 in 4 (26.4%) Australians aged 16 to 24 currently have a mental health condition.
  • A study from the University of Sydney's Brain and Mind Research Institute spoke to 2,122 young people seeking mental healthcare from Headspace centres. It found that 12% of those aged 12 to 17 were drinking alcohol on a weekly basis, and 7% were using cannabis at least once a week.
  • Suicide is the biggest killer of young Australians and accounts for the deaths of more young people than car accidents (Youth Beyond Blue (n.d.), Hermens, et. al.). 

Mental health and substance use are major challenges for young people. They may drink alcohol or use drugs to cope with undiagnosed mental health conditions or they may develop mental health conditions because of their AOD use.

Alcohol, cannabis, amphetamines, hallucinogens and inhalants affect our brains in different ways. Some act as depressants, while others are stimulants and hallucinogens. Some effects of alcohol and drugs in young people include feeling anxious, agitated, moody, depressed, flat, unmotivated, aggressive or paranoid. These changes can lead people to do things they would not normally do, such as being aggressive and violent, or taking risks.

Note

Some young people seem to be more vulnerable than others. For example, of those who smoke a lot of cannabis, about 2 to 3% will develop psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, and confused or disturbed thoughts. Young people with a family history of alcoholism have a much bigger risk of developing problematic alcohol use.

'Things I normally found enjoyable would start to not be so good, I would not want to see friends or talk to people. I would feel really upset like I wanted to cry all the time.'

(Andrew, 18 from beyondblue—Depression.

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