Teens & Substance Abuse: A Symptom of the Deeper Struggle

Helen Smalley, BSW, LAC

As an addiction counselor for many years prior to entering graduate school to pursue a career in Social Work, I predominately worked with teens, much to the relief of my coworkers. Working with teens can be challenging, though for me, quite rewarding. I don’t think I would have grown to love my work without the amazing kids I grew to know and create a safe place for, if even for a few hours. I’m pretty sure many of the kids found it entertaining to meet with me and see that I acted like a kid myself at various times.

Substance abuse can many times be a symptom of underlying problems faced at an early age. I found myself seeing a pattern in several of the teens I spent time with on a weekly basis. Though the age group was predominately 15-18, some were as young as 11. Few of them were there because they wanted to stop using, but rather as a result of trouble with the law or parents/foster parents. Each assessment took time, as most of them were quiet, not trusting or just not wanting to share information for fear of getting into trouble. The breakthrough eventually comes, trust is established, and most of them opened up knowing it was okay to do so. WOW, minus my reaction outwardly, I fought back tears, realizing I am blessed to have the opportunity to make even the slightest difference in their lives.

Looking deeper, beyond the use of substances such as marijuana (though I was laughed at and informed that isn’t what they call it anymore), ecstasy, alcohol, methamphetamine, etc., I would eventually develop a trust level that was not easy for them. There is a link between addiction and what they experience at home or in foster care, as well as the juvenile system. Examples are abuse, neglect, parental use in the home, poor school attendance, or undiagnosed mental health problems. Are they trying to numb? Escape? Forget about it all for a while? It seems it could be a little of each, and it’s important to consider these things when addressing youth substance abuse.

Putting the label of “addict” on them was not something I could accept. I did not focus on the addiction piece, but instead created lessons surrounding age of first use, patterns, or sharing examples of what long term use looks like leading into adulthood. As much as I would have loved to, I could not fix them. Understanding they are not “bad” and helping them see the light at the end of the tunnel is what brings about change and freedom. For so many, the healing process would be extensive. Some took action, others continued on using and were soon back in my office. All the teens I’ve worked with struggled at times, though many made positive changes. Working with therapists, the juvenile system, guartians, and teacher, teens can strive to find their peace and get past the pain. My continued hope is for teens to see how unique and special they are, conquer their fears, stay strong, and remember that they matter and are loved!