“The adolescent brain is often likened to a car with a fully functioning gas pedal (the reward system) but weak brakes (the prefrontal cortex).”

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)

By the time they are seniors, almost 70 percent of high school students will have tried alcohol, half will have taken an illegal drug, nearly 40 percent will have smoked a cigarette, and more than 20 percent will have used a prescription drug for a nonmedical purpose.1

Substance Abuse Disorder

Substance Abuse Disorder (SAD) occurs when the recurring use of alcohol and/or drugs causes clinically and functionally significant impairment. A diagnosis of SAD is based on evidence of “impaired control, social impairment, risky use and pharmacological criteria”.2

Kinds of Substance Abuse Disorders

The most common kinds of substance abuse disorders include alcohol (AUD), tobacco, cannabis, stimulants, hallucinogens, and opioids.

Alcohol (AUD)

88,000 or more deaths each year are caused by excessive alcohol use, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported in 2014 that more than half (52.7%) of Americans, 176.6 million people aged 12 and up, reported drinking alcohol to some degree. An estimated 17 million of those have AUD.


More than 480,000 deaths each year are caused by cigarette smoking, reports the CDC. Some 66.9 million Americans aged 12 or older are current users of a tobacco product (25.2%), although young adults aged 18 to 25 had the highest rate of current use of a tobacco product (35%), followed by adults aged 26 or older (25.8%), and by youths aged 12 to 17 (7%).


Marijuana is the most-used drug after alcohol and tobacco in the United States, reports… (SAMSHA). Some 22.2 million people ages 12 and up reported using marijuana on a monthly basis, with 4.2 million of those using to excess and meeting the criteria for use disorder.


The most commonly abused stimulants are amphetamines, methamphetamine, and cocaine. An estimated 913,000 people ages 12 and older in 2014 reported they had a stimulant use disorder because of cocaine use, and an estimated 476,000 people had a stimulant use disorder as a result of using other stimulants besides methamphetamines, says the CDC.


In 2014, approximately 246,000 Americans were reported to have a hallucinogen use disorder presenting symptoms including an increasing craving for hallucinogens, failure to control use when attempted, continued use despite interference with major obligations or social functioning, use of larger amounts over time, use in risky situations like driving, development of tolerance, and spending a great deal of time to obtain and use hallucinogens.3


Illegal opioid drugs, such as heroin and legally available pain relievers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone can cause serious health effects in those who misuse them. The growing use of legal opioids (pharmaceutical opioids), however, has led to nearly 11,000 deaths since 2011. According to the CDC, since 1999, opiate overdose deaths have increased 265% among men and 400% among women.

SUD More Than Impairs Teenagers’ Current Functioning

The period of time between childhood and adolescence is one of immense and rapid growth biologically, cognitively, emotionally and socially. Key milestones in this short time include puberty, autonomy, self-control and identity formation.

“Most kids grow dramatically during the adolescent and teen years. Their young brains, particularly the prefrontal cortex that is used to make decisions, are growing and developing, until their mid-20’s.”

Get Smart About Drugs

When substance use is allowed to be introduced at this fragile time in a person’s development, and with many unfortunately allowing such use to evolve into substance abuse, permanent damage can be done, causing long-term personal and social problems they may not be able to recover from. And sadly, this abuse all too often becomes a significant part of the adult lifestyle, outlook on life, and subsequent decision making.

Long-term drug use causes brain changes that can set people up for addiction and other problems. Once a young person is addicted, his or her brain changes so that drugs are now the top priority. He or she will compulsively seek and use drugs even though doing so brings devastating consequences to his or her life, and for those who care about him.4

The Good News

Substance Abuse Disorder is treatable, but the even better news is it’s preventable. No teen has to go down the abuse or treatment road in the first place. It can be completely avoided.

1 “Principles of Adolescent Substance Abuse Disorder Treatment,” National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 2014.
2 “Substance Abuse Disorders,” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), 2015.
3 “Teen Substance Abuse and Risks,” Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 2014.
4 “How Drugs Alter Brain Development and Affect Teens,” Get Smart About Drugs, 2018.
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