How do we raise mental health awareness for high school age teenagers to prevent substance abuse?

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What causes anxiety or depression in high schoolers?

The rising numbers of adolescents with anxiety or depression is due to a variety of social factors. In 2019, a Pew Research survey 61% of teenagers feel high amounts of pressure to earn good grades in school, 29% to fit societal beauty standards, 28% to fit in socially. However, only 6% feel pressured to drink alcohol which is comparatively much lower than other anxiety-inducing pressures.

Kathy Reamy, school counselor at La Plata High School in southern Maryland and chair of the National Education Association School Counselor Caucus states in a NEA article that teenager’s attempts to  “self-medicate with drugs and alcohol” is not only ineffective but more harmful to their well-being. Paula Riggs, MD, a psychiatry professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine explains that treating depression or ADHD actually creates a separate substance abuse issue that also needs to be treated on its own. 

Substance abuse in adolescents

Teenage substance abuse statistics

  • The number of Americans who have depression or anxiety disorder who also have a substance use disorder is about 20%.
  • Over 90% of people who started to drink alcohol or use drugs before they were 18 years old have an addiction.
  • Adolescents between the ages 18 and 25 are the most likely to use addictive drugs.  
  • People from 12 to 20 years of age consume about one-tenth of all alcohol consumed in the United States.

Substance abuse at such a young age impacts the growth and brain development. It also affects the development of health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and sleep disorders in adult life. Teenage substance abused is often considered as and followed by risky behaviors, such as unprotected sex and dangerous driving.

San Diego State University professor Jean Twenge found that teenagers who spend over five hours online a day were 71% more likely to have at least one suicide risk factor than those who spent only one hour a day. 

For Now Response

Often times, the American system when it comes to drug/sex education has been to protect students by not giving them the information they need. Nonprofit organizations like The Drug Policy Alliance, who offers free online courses for school purposes, advocate for a harm-reduction approach to drug use and openly discussing safe sex with the goal of informing students to make healthy choices. Strategies that are taught include using drugs in moderation “at a low dose and a slow dosage,” checking drugs for dangerous adulterants with a test or screening kit, and knowing what to do in an emergency situation. 

While these strategies are absolutely necessary and a great improvement in the education system, the topic of mental health is not adequately mentioned as a leading reason for teenage substance use. Especially in my own personal experience, educators use peer pressure and “risky behaviors”, due to the developing stage of the prefrontal cortex, as reasons teenagers turn to substance use even though it is incredibly important for our safety to understand why other teenagers may use drugs. That knowledge would spread more awareness about the rate of mental health issues in high school students and more effective and safer treatment options than self-medicating. 

Some information that schools should incorporate into their learning curriculum that the number of teens who will meet criteria for an anxiety disorder by the age of 18 is about one in three (31.9%). There was also an increase of 37% between 2005 and 2014 in the number of teens per year who have had a depressive episode. High school students, especially ones experiencing anxiety and depression should know how common it is to have mental health issues and to support their fellow classmates who may be having similar experiences as them. More strategies to open the conversation of mental health is, as included in the infographic below, student mentors or trained teachers/adults that students can talk to for advice or information. If possible, having separate lessons and resources specifically regarding mental health disorders would be extremely helpful in informing students on how to spot symptoms in anxiety and depression and methods on helping a classmate who the students recognize struggles with mental health issues. 

The number of high school students who struggle with anxiety and depression may be difficult to treat through school psychologists or counselors in one-on-one meetings with students. The idea of incorporating mental health awareness information and resources to students in sex/drug education would open up the conversation about safely treating mental health issues for as many teenagers as possible. 





  1. Hi Samantha,
    I loved reading through your page. I think it was actually super interesting and insightful for me, since I did a super similar topic!! I think a huge thing schools are missing is the proper education in regard to substance use and risks involved. I think your for now solution was very well thought out, and something necessary that needs to happen if we plan on helping future adults avoid substance abuse. Great job!!

  2. Thank you! I read through your page as well and I thought it was well researched and gave me more insight/detail into the correlation between depression and substance abuse than what I could find on my own. I think it would be super helpful to know both pages of information when sharing and learning about how to implement better education strategies in the future!

  3. Hi Samantha! This was a great presentation you clearly put a lot of effort into it! I think this topic is not spoken about enough a lot of the time people start putting things into action, like suicide prevention, after the fact and if this was done beforehand someone’s life could have been saved. I think your for now solutions is really great. Something I might add to it is potentially making students schedule a mandatory therapy session with a counselor once or twice a year for a check-in. Sometimes people don’t think they actually have someone to talk to but if they are provided the option they may actually start to open up.

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