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Are Fewer High Schoolers Drinking and Smoking?

Young teenager with a drinking problem. It used to be assumed that some level of drinking and drug experimentation was “normal” for kids in high school – but not anymore. Now we know that any use of drugs or alcohol during the teen through young adult years can be extremely hazardous to brain development and emotional growth and can increase the risk of substance abuse problems later in life. If a survey by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute is any indication, kids have heard that and other warnings against teen substance abuse and applied those warnings to their actions. According to the results of this survey, fewer college freshmen are reporting any use of alcohol or other drugs while they were in high school. When compared to the responses of college freshmen in past years, this demonstrates a big shift, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc.:
  • In 1981, about 74 percent of college freshmen reported that they occasionally or frequently drank beer during their senior year. That number dropped to 45.5 percent in the early 2000s, and in 2014, it dropped further to 33.5 percent.
  • In 1987, more than 67 percent of college freshmen said that they drank wine or liquor during their last year of high school. By the early 2000s, that dropped to 52 percent, and by 2014, it was at 38.7 percent.
  • In 1981, more than 9 percent of college freshmen reported smoking cigarettes during their senior year, but by 2014, only 1.7 percent of college freshmen said the same.
  • Partying in general is on the decline among high schoolers as well. Ten years ago, 23 percent of college freshmen reported having spent six hours or more on average at parties each week during their last year of high school, but in 2014, only 11 percent cited that amount of time spent partying.
So if kids aren’t concerned about drinking and getting high, what are they thinking about? According to the survey, college freshmen were more interested in financial gains and getting into graduate school than messing around with drugs and alcohol.

Does Less High School Drinking Mean Less Drinking in College?

Not necessarily, according to Kevin Eagan, Interim Managing Director at UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute. He says that binge drinking may become a temptation for kids who find themselves away from home for the first time and without their parents’ supervision, which may have been what kept them from drinking and using drugs earlier. Binge drinking is a significant issue among college kids, even those who are relatively dedicated to their studies and working toward furthering their education through graduate school, internships, and extracurricular opportunities. According to the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA), the following is true about college kids and drinking:
  • An estimated four out of every five college students drink alcohol.
  • About 50 percent of college students who drink are binge drinking.
  • More than 1,800 college students die every year due to alcohol-related injuries after binge drinking.
  • Assault, sexual abuse including date rape, injury, academic problems, and health issues including suicide attempts increase in likelihood when binge drinking is part of the picture.

Mental Health Challenges in College

In addition to a lack of parental supervision and newfound freedom, it seems that an onslaught of stress and other mental health challenges, including depression, may contribute to a college student’s decision to drink or use drugs. In fact, UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute survey found that about 9.5 percent of college freshmen were struggling with feeling depressed frequently – this was up from 6 percent back in 2009. Said Eagan: “This is signaling that students are bringing with them some emotional struggles, some mental health issues.” Those mental health issues may end up going untreated if students don’t necessarily know that they need help or that help is available, and parents aren’t in close enough contact to identify the problem. Without professional treatment, students may be inclined to attempt to self-medicate using drugs or alcohol.

Staying in Touch

Open lines of communication can go a long way toward helping parents to identify when alcohol is becoming a part of their child’s life. Even if the child is attending school far from home, regular FaceTime or Skype sessions as well as trips home over the holidays and frequent phone calls or emails can help to identify if partying is becoming a common behavior or if mental health issues like depression are becoming an issue and require treatment. It’s important that your child knows that you respect him and that your interest is in helping – not necessarily in changing his choices or forcing him to do anything he doesn’t want to do. Your support in your child’s life and interest in helping him to make positive choices should ideally begin early on. During his high school years, as you help him to sidestep the pitfalls of drug and alcohol use, you can emphasize that your door is open and that you’re interested is in helping him to be happy and succeed in every way – and that if alcohol or other substances do become an issue, it is far more important to get help than it is to fear that he will make you unhappy by sharing his problem. If your teen is struggling with drug or alcohol abuse on any level, treatment can help. Support groups with other teens who are also overcoming substance use as well as personal therapy and a range of holistic and alternative therapies can help your child to get treatment for underlying mental health issues and avoid creating more problems down the road by abusing substances. Learn more about your options in care today.

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