What’s a Person to Do? Helping Youth with Drug/Alcohol Addictions

The call comes at 3:00 a.m. from the coordinator of the event you are attending. Three boys from your youth group have been “busted” by hotel security for multiple reports of very rowdy behavior and drinking a bottle of Jack Daniels. What are you going to do? Should you contact parents? How do you handle the rest of the group you brought?

Five students are caught on your float trip/retreat for bringing a bag of weed and a bottle of Tequila. Now what?

A parent calls you after overhearing her daughter talking with another girl from your church about what happened after small group broke up last week. Evidently several students brought vodka in their water bottles, consumed quite a bit during group time, and ended up “relaxing” in the host family’s hot tub. AND that’s not all that happened after that!

Sound familiar? Your worst nightmare as a youth leader? Many of us have found ourselves in similar situations that required some type of immediate action. Yet, not all substance abuse situations are so overt, and many times even the obvious situations require not just immediate action but multiple follow-up steps. All too often, our young people suffer in silence as they watch friends and family members get subtly sucked into the vortex created by substance abuse and addiction.

How common is this situation and why should youth workers get involved? Consider:

% of 8th Graders
% of 10th Graders
% of 12th Graders
Tried alcohol in last 30 days
Been drunk in the last 30 days
Used marijuana in last 30 days
Abused over-the-counter cough/cold medicines to get high
Abused OxyContin in the last year
Abused vicodin in last year
  • One-third of teenage girls ages 12-18 and one-fifth of teenage boys have tried alcopops (sweetened, bubbly, and/or fruit-flavored). Underage girls drink alcopops alcoholic beverages more than any other type of alcoholic beverage.
  • Teens that begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to become dependent on alcohol than if they started drinking at age 21.
  • Alcohol regularly plays a role in the four top teen killers: motor-vehicle crashes, homicides, suicides, and drowning.
  • Teens can become addicted to alcohol within 6-18 months of heavy drinking.

Youth workers do not have to be a substance abuse professional to intervene in a situation. In fact, waiting too long to get involved may not only allow worsen the problem, but also put the teen and others at risk. Get into the mindset of equating this to getting help for a cold before the disease turns into pneumonia! Becoming familiar with some symptoms of substance abuse will be helpful. The chart, while not exhaustive in scope, will help you begin to identify the effects of the various drugs by the physical reactions on the body.

Type of Drug Examples of drugs in category Symptoms
Stimulants Caffeine (Ex:  energy drinks)Ritalin, Adderall, ConcertaEcstasyMethamphetamineCocaine and crack cocaineKetamine Hyperactivity ; nervous; anxious; sweatingIrritableShaking & tremorsEnlarged pupilsElevated heart and respiratory ratesTalking fast but not necessarily coherentlySkin eruptions, burns (meth sores)
Depressants AlcoholBarbituratesMarijuanaXanaxVarious sleeping pills Slurred speechSlow responsesSleepyClumsy, dizzyImpaired memory
Narcotics HeroinOxyContinVicodinPercocetCodeine Nodding offPinpoint size pupilsFlu-like symptoms (withdrawal)Weight lossPoor skin tone & colorWatery, droopy eyesNauseaDry, itchy skin
Hallucinogens MarijuanaPCP (angel dust)LSD ParanoidIrrational thinkingHallucinations
Over-the-Counter (if used above prescribed dosage) Cough medicines with DMXSudafedCoricidin HallucinationsIncreased body temperatureNausea, vomitingAbdominal painIrregular heartbeatHeadacheNumbness in fingers & toes
It may be difficult to differentiate between typical adolescent difficulties and substance abuse or addiction. A few tips may be helpful:
  1. Intervene sooner rather than later if you suspect a problem. It’s far better to get help before there is full-blown addiction to a substance.
  2. Most people, young or old, who get caught in these situations are defensive and minimize their level of substance use. Don’t take their reaction personally, but also don’t always believe what they say about how often or how much they use. Do take action before things get out of hand.
  3. Keep a referral list of counselors and agencies in your area that work in the field of substance abuse and addiction. Know where they are located and something about how they work for when, not if, you need to use them.
  4. Know your students. When behavior begins to seem out of their norm, talk to them. Pay attention to changes, no matter how subtle, in their health, appearance, social group, and behaviors. Not all of these relate to substance abuse, but they could.
  5. Early in someone’s substance abuse, their friends will probably talk to you about their concern. Take those comments to heart and intervene. Help the concerned friends with what to say to this person as well.
  6. Involve the parents but never accuse someone of alcohol or other drug abuse. State the facts, “I’m concerned about some changes in your son/daughter’s health, or behavior,” or, “She/he seems more anxious and nervous than usual.” Continue by specifically describing the changes you are noticing. Have referral numbers available for them.
  7. Watch your own biases. You may think, “not this student” or, “no one in MY youth group” would have a problem. Substance abuse and addiction does not discriminate; neither should you.
  8. Talk about substance abuse and addiction with your students and their families. One in six families struggle with these issues. It is a family disease by genetics and learned coping patterns. Help educate everyone about the facts, what to do if there’s a concern, and the resources available in your area.
  9. Use a group contract process that includes a no use of substances statement along with the consequences to expect for violating the contract.
  10. Never underestimate your power as a role model in the lives of youth. Be aware of how you talk about people getting drunk or using other drugs. Be very aware of what you do with your friends as well. Never project the idea that getting drunk is “cool” or no big deal.

Substance experimentation and abuse does not have to be a rite of passage or the norm for our teens. The temptation to follow the crowd, or believe that most teens use alcohol, tobacco, or marijuana can lead them on a path of destruction. We, as adults who care for and about youth, need to be ready and capable of helping them navigate this area of their lives. They will need emotional support, relational skills, and spiritual strength to be healthy and drug free.

  •  Center for Disease Control:  www.cdc.gov
  • National Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse- St. Louis Area:  www.ncada-stl.org
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA):  www.nida.org
  • Partnership for a Drug Free America:  www.drugfree.org
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):  www.oas.samhsa.gov; SAMHSAs Helpline:  1-800-662-HELP; SAMHSAs treatment facility locator:  240-276-2548
Alliance on Underage Drinking: Fact Sheet Consequences of Underage Drinking; excepted from Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility, a 2004 report from The National Academies.
CESAR from Hingson, R.W., Heeren, T., and Edwards, E.M. Age at Drinking Onset, Alcohol Dependence, and Their Relation to Drug Use and Dependence, Driving Under the Influence of Drugs, and Motor-Vehicle Crash Involvement Because of Drugs, Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs 69(2): 192-201, 2008.
Monitoring the Future (MTF)Survey 2008; University of Michigan.  National Institute of Drug Abuse.www.monitoringthefuture.org/data/08

About the author

Marilyn Bader works with the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse in the St. Louis area.
View more from Marilyn

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