If you are a parent who is concerned about the possibility of your children developing substance use disorder (SUD), you can implement preventative measures. This starts with paying attention to their mental health. Mental illnesses like depression can be risk factors for future substance use.
Mental Illness as a Risk Factor for Substance Use
The teenage years are a stage of life when your children have to deal with difficult emotions, including anger, anxiety, and depression. Without someone to care for their mental health, they may find substance use to help them manage these emotions.
Because teens’ brains are still developing, experimentation or substance use may develop into a dependency and SUD more quickly than adults. Take alcohol use, for example. It may temporarily distract teens from difficult feelings. However, alcohol may also make them more impulsive and aggressive. Rather than treating depression, alcohol will only become another depressant and can make things worse.
Teens and youth with existing mental health conditions such as ADHD or schizophrenia are at an even higher risk of developing SUD. Additionally, teens who struggle with SUD are at risk for developing other mental health conditions like anxiety or depression.
Why Does Substance Use Make Depression Worse?
Self-medicating with substances to alleviate symptoms of depression only works temporarily. This is because substances affect the neurotransmitters in the same brain regions that manage stress and mood. As teens become more dependent on substances to cope with mental health issues, drugs or alcohol worsen their symptoms.
Addiction fundamentally changes the way the brain works. Teens who develop SUD due to self-medicating depression may find that their depression only worsens the more they use. Because the only coping mechanism they have is the very thing causing issues, addiction and mental illness become a vicious cycle. At this point, they likely need professional treatment to recover from both conditions.
Recognizing Mental Illness
Parents or educators can identify early SUD-related risks such as social isolation, changes in sleep or eating habits, or out-of-character behaviors. These can be signs of depression. If not addressed properly, this can lead to self-medicating behaviors or further mental health issues.
By adolescence, children’s attitudes and behaviors are more established. Delaying prevention and intervention with mental health needs may make it more difficult. Parents of teenagers should monitor their social behaviors. Any signs of social withdrawal, anxiety, or depression should be taken seriously. Parents should work with mental health professionals to help their teens when necessary.
Problems in the Home That Can Contribute to Higher Risk
Because many of a teen’s social interactions occur within the home environment, it is important to identify the factors that negatively affect their development and future risk for substance use. For example, a lack of emotional expressions or attachment between children and parents may contribute to the development of mental health issues.
If parents or caregivers themselves use substances or suffer from mental health illnesses, their children may be at higher risk for developing these issues as well. The reason for this is two-fold. Genetics plays a large factor in both mental illness and SUD. Additionally, exposure to substances or other poor coping mechanisms for life’s problems teaches teens to deal with their difficulties similarly.
Parents are the ultimate role models for their children, from infancy through the teenage years and even into adulthood. When children do not feel safe and valued at home, their low self-esteem can also be a risk factor for later problems.
High-Risk Periods for Youth to Develop SUD
Major transitions in a child’s life can be high-risk periods. These include milestones in both physical and social development. Examples include puberty, parental divorce, losing loved ones, starting at a new school, or significant changes in the home environment. Children may experience heightened stress, which makes them vulnerable to mental health problems.
When youth leave the security of their home and advance to middle school or high school, new social and unfamiliar atmospheres may also become high-risk periods. Early adolescence is a time when most teens encounter substances for the first time. This time coincides with a period in their development where they may want to experiment with new things and seek social approval from peers.
High school is another phase when young people face additional educational and social challenges. More socialization happening outside of parental supervision, combined with the high availability of substances, creates the perfect environment for peer pressure that leads to substance use and addiction.
How Should Parents Prevent and Intervene?
Any preventative measures should begin with education. Parents should obtain information on the risks of substance use among youth. Then, they can assess the negative risk factors at home and change their communication, social interactions, and lifestyle. Equipped with self-awareness and knowledge of what to look out for, parents can prevent teens with mental health issues like depression from developing SUD.
Getting the community involved to proactively assess the level of mental illness and substance use risk may also be helpful. Together, community members can plan sober social events and model for youth. Parents can also advocate for more awareness about teen mental health and substance use prevention in schools and communities.
Depression and related mental health problems are common, even among teens. Treating these mental health conditions early on can prevent later substance use. At Laguna Shores Recovery, we strongly believe in implementing preventative measures before substance use enters the equation, especially in teens who have mental illnesses, as these are risk factors for developing SUD. If you or a loved one suffers from SUD and co-occurring disorders like depression, we provide world-class treatment to help you achieve recovery. Alongside customized treatment plans, family therapy, and support groups, Laguna Shores Recovery also offers aftercare programs that connect you with a supportive community of recovering individuals. Call us today at (866) 229-9923.