Talking to teenagers about drug use


January 22 is National Drugs and Alcohol Chat Day. We've included some questions and answers on this page to help you start a conversation with your teenagers about their exposure to drugs and alcohol and what they can do if they or someone they know needs help.

We know that teen decision-making is often different from that of adults, and can involve more risk-taking. Some of this is good, helping teens learn who they are and what they want to be, but some risks can have serious negative consequences as well. What we do know is that early drug use is associated with later drug problems.

Teens are bombarded with conflicting messages that can leave them feeling confused and unsure of who to ask for information about drug use. 12% of seniors in high school report abuse of prescription drugs in the past year and 22.5% report use of marijuana in the past month.

Even occasional or experimental drug use can be dangerous, since drugs can have unexpected adverse health effects even with one use; and drugs affect your ability to exert good judgment, making it more likely that you might engage in risky behaviors that can have serious consequences, such as driving while intoxicated.

Prolonged drug use can cause other medical problems like:

  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Liver disease
  • Addiction
When someone is addicted to drugs, they become the most important thing in that person's life, causing major problems at school, home, and work.

Drug use and mental health

Drug use and addiction and other mental disorders are related. On one hand, people who use drugs generally have higher rates of many mental illnesses. In fact, there is evidence that drug use early in life may increase the risk of psychiatric disorders or accelerate their course. On the other hand, it is true that persons with mental illnesses are more likely to use drugs than other people. For example, children and adolescents with conduct disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and learning disabilities are at higher risk of using drugs, particularly if the illness is left untreated.

The reasons why addiction and other mental disorders are so closely linked are not fully understood. But scientists believe there may be at least three different reasons for this:

  1. Drug use may cause one or more symptoms of another mental illness, through long-term negative changes in brain structure and function. For example, repeated cocaine use can cause panic attacks, which can then persist even when a person stops using cocaine.
  2. Mental illnesses may lead to drug use if a mentally ill person begins to use a drug in an attempt to reduce or manage the symptoms of the disorder. The high rates of tobacco addiction in people with schizophrenia may be linked to reducing the cognitive disturbances of schizophrenia or countering medication side effects.
  3. Drug use and other mental disorders may be both caused by common factors, such as underlying brain deficits or early exposure to stress or trauma.

Questions to discuss with your teenager

How can I encourage my friend to stop taking drugs and get her some help?

The first thing you can do is listen to what she has to say about her drug use and about why she is using. It is always a good idea to encourage your friend to confide and seek advice from a trusted adult. If she doesn't realize the negative health effects drugs have on her body, brain, and life, there is a lot of information you can share with her that can be found online ( If she is already aware of the negative consequences drugs have on her health, school, family, etc., she may be prepared to make a change and seek treatment. You can help her find a doctor, therapist, support group, or treatment program by calling 1-800-662-HELP.

If your friend is not ready yet to get help, don't give up on her. Keep reaching out, and hopefully some day soon she will be ready. Helping her go through the process of starting treatment, keeping in touch with her while she is in treatment, and supporting and encouraging her while she is in recovery are the best things you can do for your friend struggling with addiction.

I think my friend is on drugs, but he won't talk to me. What do I do?

It's hard to be in the situation of seeing a friend going down a dangerous path or suffering and not being sure what you can do to help. First, let your friend know that someone cares about him. You can let him know you are concerned without being judgmental, and that there are people he can talk with in confidence. He may be more open to talk to a trusted adult or a medical professional if he feels that his privacy would not be violated. There are some resources for him that are anonymous including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. They don't just talk about suicide; they can help with a lot of issues including drug use, and can connect your friend with a professional close by.

There is also a website with information about treatment programs at Because talking with someone about their drug use can be uncomfortable, you may want to ask an adult you trust, like a teacher or coach, to help you figure out how best to help your friend.

How effective is drug treatment? Why do celebrities go back to rehab again and again?

There are lots of different kinds of treatments for drug use and addiction, and some work better than others. Research has shown that some treatments successfully help people stop using drugs and also help to solve other problems that tend to go along with drug use. It's hard to say why some celebrities keep going back to treatment. What we do know is that people who finish a treatment program that uses evidence-based practices tend to have a much better chance of staying off drugs for good, but that often involves major changes in lifestyle. That includes changing where you hang out and who you hang out with.

If people aren't willing to make those changes, they can easily fall back into using drugs. And even those people who do become abstinent can remain at risk for relapse for a very long time and may require ongoing support from community groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, or multiple rounds of drug treatment. Addiction can be a chronic disease. It involves changes in the brain that can persist even after a person stops using drugs. This can make a person vulnerable to relapse, and if that happens it becomes important to get them back into treatment as soon as possible so that they can eventually recover fully and regain productive lives.

If you were once addicted to a drug and then stopped using it, will you always have the urge to go back to that drug again?

Not everyone has the same feelings after stopping drugs, but many say that they have a continuing urge to use, especially in the early days after quitting. And in some cases, the triggers for this urge or craving may not even be consciously realized, such as passing by a place where drugs were once purchased or used or seeing an old friend with whom drugs were taken. One of the things that treatment does is help people to deal with the urges to use. And over time, these urges to use can weaken and become less frequent.

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