School’s out—and kids across the country are thrilled to put away their textbooks, sleep in, and just relax without the pressure of homework and extra curricular activities. Everyone needs leisure time, especially in today’s over-programmed world. But if kids today are anything like I was (and I suspect they are), too much free time can be dangerous. As a child, I was a natural risk-taker. And the more unstructured time I had, the more likely I was to experiment—sometimes to the detriment of my health and wellbeing.
For this reason, I wasn’t at all surprised to read the new SAMHSA data, based on the National Survey on Drug Use and Health for the years 2002 to 2012. The research showed that more teens tried drugs for the first time in June and July than at any other point in the year. Each day during these months, more than 11,000 teens on average tried alcohol, more than 5,000 tried cigarettes, and more than 4,500 tried marijuana—each day! Thus far, media coverage has focused on these three drugs, but I want to stress that the rates of initiation were highest in the summer for five of the nine drugs studied. The number of teens who tried inhalants and hallucinogens also spiked during this time of year. This indicates that June and July are problematic months for experimentation, and not just with alcohol, cigarettes, and pot.
So, what can we do to protect our kids? Of course, parents are the first line of defense. Knowing that children are more likely to try drugs during the summer than in any other season, moms and dads should add a healthy amount of structure to their kids’ days. Don’t just let teens sit in front of the TV all day while you’re at work. Sign them up for sports teams, arts camps, music lessons, or other activities that will keep them busy. Also, lock your medicine cabinets. Prescription drug abuse is now a widespread problem, especially among adolescents, and we have seen kids in treatment for problems with heroin who say they would have never tried it if they hadn’t gotten addicted to prescription painkillers first. The transition from prescription opiates to heroin can be dangerously quick, often happening over just six months as teens become dependent on expensive painkillers and realize that heroin is much cheaper.
In addition to parents, the media and law enforcement officials can play an important part. Media prevention campaigns and public service announcements that focus on prevention are vital. These campaigns should specifically target “initiators” (kids who have not yet tried drugs) to show the negative outcomes of drug use as well as the positive outcomes of remaining drug-free. We at Phoenix House know the negative side effects all too well. These difficulties include loss of interest in hobbies, lack of motivation in school, and social problems. These consequences are not always the result of so-called “hard drug” use. In fact, the majority of teens in our care say their primary drug of choice was marijuana. Yes, pot, alcohol, and tobacco can lead to the use of heavier drugs, but we must get the message across that these substances are harmful in and of themselves.
At the same time, law enforcement officials could play an important role by increasing efforts to prevent the sale of tobacco and alcohol to minors. It’s very common for young people with summer jobs at groceries or convenience stores to sell cigarettes and beer to their friends. The knowledge that law enforcement is watching and imposing fines and other penalties can deter such transactions.
Above all, we must remember that drugs—whether alcohol, marijuana, or other substances—are especially harmful to the still-developing teen brain. We know that if a person has not developed a substance abuse problem by the age of 21, he or she is unlikely to develop one in the future. For this reason, we shouldn’t let it slide when adolescents “test the waters” with drugs. Let’s put our own summers to good use—by talking to our kids, increasing community prevention efforts, and stopping teen drug use before it starts.
Deni Carise, Ph.D.
Chief Clinical Officer