Adolescent Substance Abuse

What causes substance abuse/chemical dependence?Adolescent Substance Abuse
Cultural and societal norms influence acceptable standards of substance use. Public laws determine the legal use of substances. The question of whether there is a normative pattern of substance use in adolescence remains controversial. Substance-related disorders in adolescence are caused by multiple factors including genetic vulnerability, environmental stressors, social pressures, individual personality characteristics, and psychiatric problems. However, determining which of these factors are primary and which are secondary in adolescent populations has not been determined. Most of the knowledge available regarding substance use and abuse comes from studying adult populations. A lack of research studying youthful substance use and abuse leaves questions concerning how it differs from substance abuse in other age groups unanswered.

Stimulants: Use Among Young People (mp3)

What substances are most often abused by adolescents?

Substances frequently abused by adolescents include, but are not limited to, the following:
    • Alcohol
    • Marijuana
    • Hallucinogens
    • Cocaine
    • Amphetamines
    • Opiates
    • Anabolic steroids
Who is affected by substance abuse/chemical dependence?
Parental and peer substance use are considered two of the more common factors contributing to youthful decisions regarding substance use. Alcohol use among adolescents has increased during the last 10 years.

Some adolescents are more at risk of developing substance-related disorders, including adolescents with one or more of the following conditions present:
    • Children of substance abusers
    • Adolescents who are victims of physical, sexual, or psychological abuse
    • Adolescents with mental health problems, especially depressed and suicidal teens
    • Physically disabled adolescents
What are the symptoms of substance abuse/chemical dependence?
The following are the most common behaviors that indicate an adolescent is having a problem with substance abuse. However, each adolescent may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:
    • Getting high on drugs or getting intoxicated (drunk) on a regular basis
    • Lying, especially about how much they are using or drinking
    • Avoiding friends and family members
    • Giving up activities they used to enjoy such as sports or spending time with non-using friends
    • Talking a lot about using drugs or alcohol
    • Believing they need to use or drink in order to have fun
    • Pressuring others to use or drink
    • Getting in trouble with the law
    • Taking risks, such as sexual risks or driving under the influence of a substance
    • Suspension from school for a substance-related incident
    • Missing school due to substance use
    • Depressed, hopeless, or suicidal feelings

The symptoms of substance abuse may resemble other medical problems or psychiatric conditions. Always consult your child's physician for a diagnosis.

How is substance abuse/chemical dependence diagnosed?
A pediatrician, psychiatrist, or qualified mental health professional usually diagnoses substance abuse in adolescents. However, adolescent substance abuse is believed by some to be the most commonly missed pediatric diagnosis. Adolescents who use drugs are most likely to visit a physician's office with no obvious physical findings. Substance abuse problems are more likely to be discovered by physicians when adolescents are injured in accidents occurring while under the influence, or when they are brought for medical services because of intentional efforts to hurt themselves. Clinical findings often depend on the substance abused, the frequency of use, and the length of time since last used, and may include the following:
    • Weight loss
    • Constant fatigue
    • Red eyes
    • Little concern for hygiene

Prevention of substance abuse/chemical dependence
There are three major approaches frequently used to prevent adolescent substance use and abuse, including the following:

    • School-based prevention programs
      School-based prevention programs usually provide drug and alcohol education and interpersonal and behavior skills training.
    • Community-based prevention programs
      Community-based prevention programs usually involve the media and are aimed for parents and community groups. Programs such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD) are the most well known community-based programs.
    • Family-focused prevention programs
      Family-focused prevention programs involve parent training, family skills training, children's social skills training, and family self-help groups. Research literature available suggests that components of family-focused prevention programs have decreased the use of alcohol and drugs in older children and improved effectiveness of parenting skills that favorably affected their children's risk factors.

Treatment for substance abuse/chemical dependence
Specific treatment for substance abuse/chemical dependence will be determined by your child's physician based on:

    • Your child's age, overall health, and medical history
    • Extent of your child's symptoms
    • Extent of your child's dependence
    • The substance abused
    • Your child's tolerance for specific medications or therapies
    • Expectations for the course of the condition
    • Your opinion or preference

A variety of treatment programs for substance abuse are available on an inpatient or outpatient basis. Programs considered are usually based on the type of substance abused. Detoxification (if needed, based on the substance abused) and long-term follow-up management are important features of successful treatment. Long-term follow-up management usually includes formalized group meetings and developmentally age-appropriate psychosocial support systems, as well as continued medical supervision. Individual and family psychotherapy are often recommended to address the developmental, psychosocial, and family issues that may have contributed to and resulted from the development of a substance abuse disorder.

Adolescent Substance use Skills Education Training
The Adolescent Substance use Skills Education Training (ASSET) is a comprehensive treatment program designed for adolescents (age 13-17) with substance use concerns, and their families. This program is approved by the Charleston School District and can also be used to satisfy Pretrial Intervention (PTI) requirements. ASSET is found on evidence-based interventions for teens who suffer from substance use. Upon a comprehensive evaluation, an individualized treatment plan is created utilizing group and/or individual and family therapy. Medication management as well as routine drug and alcohol screens are available. ASSET groups consist of the following teaching objectives: 1) substance use education about physical and psychological effects of drugs and alcohol, 2) enhancement of decision-making skills and increasing motivation for abstinence, 3) coping skills, such as drug refusal skills, emotional regulation skills, and relaxation skills. In addition, adolescents and their families may participate in weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly individual and family sessions focusing on preventing relapse, as well as other related concerns, such as anger management, depression, and anxiety.

For information or to make an appointment, please call (843) 792-5200
Location: We are located at the Medical University of South Carolina, 67 President street, in the Institute of Psychiatry on 4-North
We accept all major insurances, including Medicaid


Center for Drug & Alcohol Programs
67 President Street
MSC 861
Charleston, SC
(843) 792-2727