Am I Too Young to Be Addicted? – A Look at Adolescent Substance Use Disorder

When you visualize someone suffering from addiction, what kind of person do you imagine? Many people’s image of addiction includes only the rock bottom consequences of the disease. While it’s true that homelessness, poor health, incarceration, and death can be the end result of years of substance abuse, in fact many, if not most, people dealing with addiction never reach those depths. 

The misguided notion that only “low bottom” cases require help often gets in the way of much needed recovery. We hope to dispel some misconceptions out there that may wrongly lead young people in active substance abuse to believe their problems are not “severe enough” to seek help. 

Misconceptions about addiction are especially common in adolescents and young adults who may have only been using drugs and alcohol for a few years. It can be difficult to recognize their use as an issue at this early stage. Hopefully, having a working understanding of addiction will help you recognize if you have an issue before you suffer the most severe consequences of this disease.

Is Addiction the Same as Substance Use Disorder?

There are professionals in the substance use treatment industry who prefer not to use the term “addiction” due to associated negative connotations. They instead prefer to use the clinical term Substance Use Disorder or SUD. We choose, at times, to use the word addiction as this term is what is most commonly used by the general public. We use the two terms interchangeably in this article. 

What is Substance Use Disorder?

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) define a substance use disorder (SUD) as:

“Substance use disorders occur when the recurrent use of alcohol and/or drugs causes clinically significant impairment, including health problems, disability, and failure to meet major responsibilities at work, school, or home.”

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, (DSM-V) outlines eleven symptoms of SUDs:

  1. Having a persistent wish to stop using the substance and/or continuously trying to reduce or control substance use
  2. Continuing to use the substance despite knowing that a physical or psychological health issue was likely caused or worsened by the substance
  3. Using the substance in larger amounts or over a long time period than originally intended
  4. Exhibiting withdrawal symptoms when not using the substance
  5. Spending a significant amount of time trying to obtain the substance, use it, or recover from using it
  6. Stopping or decreasing social, work-related, or recreational activities due to substance use
  7. Building up a tolerance, where a larger amount of the substance is needed to experience an effect
  8. Having a strong urge to use the substance
  9. Continuing to use even when it causes an inability to fulfill work, school, or home-related responsibilities
  10. Continuing to use the substance even when it causes interpersonal problems or makes them worse
  11. Continuing to use the substance even in situations that are risky or physically dangerous

Careful reflection of the above list reveals that a catastrophic collapse in health and social standing are not necessary for a person to have a problem. The more important factors to consider are your personal relationship with drugs and alcohol and the relative decline of your relationships, work, and overall lifestyle. Whether you have only been drinking or using for a few months or many years, you may be suffering from a SUD.

Does Age Have an Impact on Substance Use Disorder?

As we have seen, age is irrelevant as a criteria for diagnosis with a SUD, but what do the numbers say?  

According to SAMHSA, approximately 3.8% of adolescents aged 12-18 have suffered from a substance use disorder in the past year. This may not sound like a whole lot, but across the entire US, this amounts to almost 1 million adolescent sufferers every year.

In North Carolina, there are an estimated 25,000 adolescent substance abusers, and 3.45% of all 12-17 year old North Carolinians need but do not receive treatment. This is a substantial challenge to not only the sufferer, but their family and friends.

If you or a loved one is an adolescent and are concerned that they might be suffering from a SUD, here are some questions to consider:

1. Social Impact: 

  • Have I scaled back my life and changed my behavior to maximize opportunities for drinking and using? 
  • Have I failed to meet my relationship, work, or school obligations? 
  • Am I spending more and more of my time trying to obtain the substance? 
  • Am I hiding my use?

2.  Physical Impact: 

  • Has my tolerance increased? 
  • Do I still have control over the amount I use?
  • Do I experience withdrawals or cravings?

3. Mental Impact:

  • Do I continue to use despite wanting to stop? 
  • Do I continue to use despite knowing that it will have an adverse affect on my health and relationships?

If you or a loved one answered yes to all or some of the above questions, you/they may be suffering from a substance use disorder. So what now?

What Can I Do About Substance Use Disorder?

Being a teen or young person with a substance use disorder can cause you to feel hopeless, alone, and ashamed. It can be hard to see a way to build or rebuild your life and have hope for a happy future, either with or without your drug of choice. Happily though, there is a way out. 

For many this involves clinical treatment in programs specializing in adolescent SUDs, outpatient programs, and participation in recovery fellowships. These steps can help stabilize life, recover physically, and build a social network of other young people on a similar path.

One of the programs out there that specializes in dealing with adolescents is Stonewater Adolescent Recovery Center. We spoke with them recently about how young people who work with them often experience recovery from addiction issues.  

Young people often express that they have been using substances to cope with the discomfort of feelings, that prior to treatment, they couldn’t identify and were overwhelmed by,” notes Heather Thomas, a Clinical Therapist at Stonewater. “After treatment, they feel a sense of empowerment to manage those emotions that they once found overwhelming. The sense of relief that accompanies this powerful change in emotional awareness and management is life-changing.

Another important consideration that Elizabeth Fikes, one of the Founders at Stonewater, made clear is how important it is for families looking at treatment programs for an adolescent to seek out programs that focus not only on the substance use, but dig into why an adolescent began using in the first place.

In our work with emerging adults, we’ve found that young people’s lives do get better over time in recovery, but the journey is almost never linear. Embracing that your journey is unique to you is important, and know that there are people who’ve walked a similar path as you and are ready to guide you along. The most critical thing to remember is that there is help available. 

No matter how young you are, it is never too early to recover. 

Are you or a loved one looking for help with substance use in North Carolina? Give us a call at 984-204-1106 and we’ll gladly help you find the right resources.