“The attempt to escape from pain, is what creates more pain.” Gabor Mate specializes in addiction and trauma.

When addressing teenager’s mental health, is not just depression and anxiety, teenagers suffer from mood disorders, ADHD and autism, eating disorders, trauma, and many others. Addiction and substance abuse in teenagers are leading factors in teens’ mental illness, so let’s talk about it.   

Mental illness exists on its own, just like addiction exists on its own, but when both are co-existing in one person, there is a term for when both exist in one person, the co-occurring disorder; however, which comes first? Mental illness or addiction? It’s like the chicken and the egg theory, there is no clear answer. Someone who suffers from depression may turn to drugs to cope or escape, and, on the other side, someone who becomes addicted to nicotine might use smoking as a way to manage an eating disorder because nicotine is an easy substitute to eating. Teenagers, specifically between ages 12-17 are most affected by the co-occurring disorder. 
The symptoms of addiction and the symptoms of mental illness are so similar, so it is unfortunately hard to diagnose.  

Substance abuse affects one’s emotional, physical, and mental health, so starting at such a young age is one of the worst times to do so. The human brain doesn’t finish developing until 25, so putting such toxic chemicals in one’s body so early affects long-term health. According to a September 11, 2019, post by Multi-Systemic Therapy Services (MST), a 14-year-old is more likely to develop an addiction than a 28 because a teen’s brain is still developing. So, a teen who may turn to drugs to escape depression can likely end up having a reduced ability to experience pleasure one day because the brain comes to rely on the drugs, and the natural release of the happy chemicals becomes compromised.   

Marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco products are popular substances among teenagers. Using and recovering teens were asked about their experiences. A 14-year-old girl, who chose to stay anonymous, had some insights into the complex relationship between drugs and mental health issues. “I recently got diagnosed with depression and a bit of anxiety.” When asked if she ever thought to turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with her mental health struggles, she said, “A couple of times yes, I’ve thought about smoking weed, but I’ve mostly not done anything just to keep myself from getting addicted.”  Self-medicating through drugs seems, unfortunately, like an option for some young people; common responses from students’ discussions on this topic revealed how easy the decision to use was. A 17-year-old female (she/her) said, “because it’s really difficult sometimes, drugs seem like the easiest coping mechanism.”  An 18-year-old male said, “because using helped me run away from my problems.” Teens, in general, have less emotional maturity to work through issues and can be impulsive in their choices dealing with them.  

 Mental health issues should not be stigmatized or ignored; running away from the issue doesn’t solve anything, at least not long-term. For teenagers who do not get enough support for their mental health struggles, self-medication is often not a casual choice but, from their perspective, a necessity. Teenagers with addictions don’t want to come to school high or vape in the bathrooms, but for many, it is what they do to function. Addiction isn’t a dirty word that shouldn’t spoken about; teens abuse substances and they should not be punished for the mental illness they cannot control. Students as young as grade nine do not think teens get enough support when dealing with substance abuse. “To be honest, no. I do not think they get enough support because it’s a really tough thing to be going through, and I don’t think it’s talked about often and mental health and drugs should be talked about more than it is,” said 14-year-old-girl who attends Riverside. 

According to Youth Mental Health Canada, young people aged 15 to 24 are more likely to experience mental illness and/or substance use disorders than any other age group. Those aged 15 to 17 have the highest rate of ED (eating disorder) visits and hospitalizations for mental health disorders among children and youth, CIHI. Mental illness affects some 1.2 million children and youth. By age 25, that number rises to 7.5 million (about one in five Canadians), Mental Health Commission of Canada. These are just three sad statistics of teen’s mental health in Canada. At least 50% of those teens will try drugs before high school graduation and roughly 10% of those teens will end up addicted. Drugs and mental illness will always be an issue but limiting the drug use and creating more access to professional help for teens with mental illness and substance abuse issues would be beneficial. All three that were interviewed have mental illness and have used or thought of using self-medicating with drugs. All three teenagers who agreed to give their opinion have sought help and made a difference for themselves, but not everyone has that willpower. Not every teen who is using has a supportive family, friend group, or other close relationships to rely on. For many teens who are using, they are more afraid of the rules in place around drugs at Riverside than thinking of it as a safe place to get help with their addictions. Although Riverside does have many forms of help for addiction and mental health, some students are still reluctant to seek help because of stigma and fear.  

Mental health is not just a conversation for a week or the month of May, it needs to be a constant conversation. Substance abuse and mental health go hand in hand, especially in teenagers, and with more societal support could hopefully deal with one or the other, preferably neither.