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Addiction expert: Stop treating underage drinking, drug use as healthy experimentation

One statistic that always stands out to me is that 90 percent of those who develop a substance-use disorder began drinking, smoking or using drugs before the age of 18.


As a parent and a professional in the field of substance-abuse prevention, I've seen my share of data over the years. One statistic that always stands out to me is that 90 percent of those who develop a substance-use disorder began drinking, smoking or using drugs before the age of 18.

That figure is startling, and yet I've come to view it as an opportunity to help guide youth toward a healthier path before risky behavior spirals into addiction and causes both short- and longer-term consequences.

We can make a difference in preventing teenage substance use from developing into a lifelong disorder, but we must collectively stop treating underage drinking and drug use as healthy experimentation or a rite of passage. Instead, I recommend investing in substance-use screenings for at-risk youth and focusing on motivating them toward positive change before their use of substances becomes a problem.

For starters, we need to view this approach like any other medical issue, screening children from an early age to establish a baseline for their behavior and risk factors. This approach is an opportunity for youth to be authentic and share with another safe adult what's going on in their lives that might warrant further evaluation.

For a young child, a "screening" would not focus on alcohol or drug use, but it might explore the child's understanding of the proper use of medicines, such as cough medicines. Or the conversation might touch on inhalants, which are typically the only substances used at a higher rate by younger children than older teens. Even if they're not willing to be completely honest, asking children the question does plant a seed.  As the child develops into a teen, we recommend the use of research-based screening tools that can be completed in as little as five minutes.

In my position with Caron Treatment Centers' education department, I've seen firsthand the positive impact of early intervention. We utilize the Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) model, which has been used to evaluate more than a million at-risk youth and has the potential to make a significant difference in reducing more serious substance-use disorders.

Most intervention efforts in communities today are still too focused on older teenagers who already have more significant consequences. But consider that 23 percent of eighth graders have tried alcohol and 14 percent marijuana. That number nearly doubles by 10th grade, at 42 percent for alcohol and 31 percent for marijuana. It's clear that screening in ninth grade helps to support teens at a crucial time.

Much of the success of these interventions comes from helping students gain awareness and insight. For example, many times teens have been drinking, smoking or vaping without really thinking about it. Motivational interviewing techniques are used to support teens in making positive changes toward healthy choices through conversations that meet the individuals where they are.

Teens are impulsive for a lot of reasons including, of course, brain development and hormones, but they need an opportunity to hit pause and come up with alternative coping strategies with the help of supportive adults. This discussion can take many approaches that may be more relatable to teens, such as the cost of vaping, or how substance use has interfered with personal goals.

A new grant from the Independence Blue Cross Foundation's Supporting Treatment and Overdose Prevention (STOP) Initiative, announced at its conference "Someone You Know: Facing the Opioid Crisis Together," will allow my prevention team at Caron to expand the use of SBIRT in the region, training health-care providers and educators on how to implement the screening, intervention, and referral process effectively.

Drinking, drug use and other risky behavior is not an inevitable part of growing up. By starting conversations at an earlier age and using proven screening and early-intervention strategies, we can empower a culture of healthier behavior in teens that will serve them throughout their lifetimes.

Tammy Granger is vice president of education at Caron Treatment Centers. She oversees Caron's student assistance program and campus engagement departments.