When teens take drugs their tendency to make bad decisions isn’t just limited to drugs. They’re also likely to take more risks in other areas of their life. Studies show that adolescents are more likely to become pregnant, possess a gun and be around more violent people than kids who don’t use. “At-risk kids are more prone to [all three of these] and we see it in the inner city and in the suburbs,” says Neil Bernstein, PhD, a psychologist in Washington, DC, and author of There When He Needs You: How to Be an Available, Involved, and Emotionally Connected Father to Your Son. “These kids are often depressed, not connected with their families and susceptible to peer pressure.”
“This has nothing to do with socioeconomic status,” adds Leslie Walker, MD, professor and chief of the adolescent medicine division at Seattle Children’s Hospital and Research Foundation. “And the drug use isn’t always apparent. I see kids who are getting all As, are headed for college and are addicted to heroin. The only difference in terms of money is that parents who are more wealthy can take their kids out of a situation and send them to rehab and less wealthy parents can’t do that so easily.”
What’s a mom or dad to do if they suspect drugs are at play? “The main thing that parents have to know,” says Dr. Walker, “is that taking drugs is not [normal] behavior. Most kids don’t use marijuana in high school. Parents who suspect drug use need to address it immediately, take the child to get assessed and see what’s going on.”
How Drug Use Feeds Other Behavior
“When teens are taking drugs, they have a harder time remembering to take a pill or use a condom,” says Walker. “When I am working with these kids, we usually advise them to use a longer-acting type of contraception.” This was found to be true by researchers at Washington University, in St. Louis, who determined that high school students who smoke, drink, use drugs, carry a weapon to school, get involved in fights or engage in other problem behaviors also are more likely to become pregnant or to impregnate a sexual partner. The research was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Says study author Patricia A. Cavazos-Rehg, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine: “Teen pregnancies have been declining, but it’s not because teens aren’t engaging in as much sex. It’s that more have been using condoms and other contraceptive methods,” says Dr. Cavazos-Rehg. “Yet there’s still this high-risk group of adolescents putting themselves at increased risk for pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.” In 2012, a total of 305,388 babies were born to women 15 to 19 years old. This is a record low for U.S. teens in this age group, and a drop of 6% percent from 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,.
Cavazos-Rehg analyzed data gathered in 1999, 2001 and 2003 as part of the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System a project that collected information from more than 14,000 high school students who answered questions about smoking, drug use, drinking and driving, sexual activity and other risky behavior. “We didn’t find that one risk behavior (use of a specific drug) impacted teen pregnancy risk. Instead, what we found was that the number of risk behaviors was important for predicting likelihood for teen pregnancy,” says Cavazos-Rehg. “We assessed several health risk behaviors, such as binge drinking, drinking and driving, marijuana use and cocaine use. The more risk behaviors that teens engaged in, the higher likelihood for teen pregnancy.”
And the study found that not only did teen girls who engaged in high-risk activity — including drug use — have a tendency to become pregnant, they were also at greater risk for multiple pregnancies. “Several factors link drug use with teen pregnancy,” Cavazos-Rehg explains. “Part of the connection is due to the intoxicating effects of these substances and the lack of regard for consequences. One’s social surroundings can also impact risk behaviors, such as a toxic peer group that supports drug use and sex.” She adds that when kids aren’t monitored by their parents that can raise risk as well.
- Guns and Violence
A recent report from researcher Kelly V. Ruggles, PhD, of the department of population health at New York University Langone Medical Center, and Sonali Rajan, EdD, professor in the department of health and behavior studies at Teachers College, Columbia University, looked at data from about 84,000 students nationwide between 2001 and 2011 and found that while mental health issues are associated with kids who carry guns, other behaviors, like long-term drug use are more strongly correlated. The researchers found that drug use and fighting in school were more tied to one’s likelihood of carrying a gun than factors like having suicidal thoughts or depression.
The researchers determined heroin to be the drug most strongly associated with teens carrying a gun, but found that cocaine, steroids, cigars, marijuana, alcohol and methamphetamines and other injected drugs to also be high on the list. “This makes sense, because when adolescents are taking drugs, especially heroin, they feel like they need [have a gun] to be safe,” says Walker. “When you are dependent on heroin, you need it four to five times a day and you will do whatever you have to do to get it. That goes for everyone – rich, poor, Asian, white, black – and you come into contact with not-so-nice people. Kids who can afford it will often buy a gun; others might take one from their parents. Many kids turn to selling [heroin] so that they can have it, and that puts them at great risk.”