Mike Weiland has seen how teens have become more susceptible to addiction in recent years.
The current opioid epidemic is a well-known national emergency. Other societal changes, such as relaxing public attitudes and easier access to certain types of drugs, have also increased risks for young people. Meanwhile, our understanding of brain science better explains how addiction affects adolescents differently.
Weiland is a substance abuse counselor and owner of the Crossroads Program in St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia, Missouri. He has worked in recovery programs for more than 25 years and focuses on people between the ages of 13 to 25, when the brain is still developing.
He says many teens fail to recognize that marijuana is one of the most psychologically damaging drugs they can do at this age.
“THC actually stunts them emotionally,” he said, referring to the active substance in marijuana. It affects memory and discernment. He has treated many young people who start out smoking weed and end up on opiates.
He says teenagers haven’t changed much since he was one himself. They are still rebellious and push the envelope when they can. But in the past 10 to 15 years, attitudes about smoking marijuana and teen drinking have loosened. It appears to be more socially acceptable in certain circles, which increases the chances a child will use a chemical substance, he said.
“It’s also more accessible and convenient for these guys,” he added. People may not realize how much easier it is for a young person to become addicted. “The teenage brain can get addicted to substances in six months, versus a few years in adults,” he said. They have brain physiology that primes them to become addicts.
When he works with teenagers, he explains that getting clean is about more than getting off drugs. It’s about changing their entire lifestyle. His program has to create fun sober environments to keep teenagers in recovery. In addition to support-group meetings specifically for teens, young adults and parents, it hosts two social events each weekend. On New Year’s Eve, it hosts a lock-in for members and their families that consists of meetings, a dance, life stories and a balloon drop.
“The reason most teenagers get high is because they like it,” he said. “If they don’t find something they like more, they don’t stay sober.”
Everyone knows someone who has been affected by addiction. But Weiland has been in the trenches with those struggling with addiction for decades, and some of what he has to say would surprise teens and their parents.
He sees certain personality types more often end up with addictions than others. This includes those who have low self-esteem or self-worth. People who are very intense, “drama queens,” overly sensitive, very self-centered, and often with above-average intelligence also are at greater risk, he said.
Unfortunately, that sounds like most teenagers at some point. He tells parents to watch out for certain warning signs: If money is missing or your child is hanging out with friends who are getting high, your kid is also probably getting high.
Many parents deny their child has a problem if they are recreationally drinking but maintaining good grades and remaining involved in extracurricular activities.
“I think any kid using substances is in danger,” Weiland said. “Don’t deny your instinct.”
Research suggests that 85 percent of addiction starts with legally prescribed drugs. Many young people get painkillers from their parents’ or other people’s medicine cabinets. He also advises parents to lead by example.
“If you tell your kids to stay off drugs, but you are smoking weed, your kids know,” he said. The same goes for parents who have several drinks a night. If you find your child is using substances, he recommends getting all drugs and alcohol out of your house, at least temporarily.
An important part of the Crossroads recovery program is teaching young people to have ownership over their decisions. They want to show them it’s possible to have an awesome life and be cool while being sober.
Teens have access to a lot of information on the internet, but they don’t necessarily know how to make sense of it or discern what is true from it. They may not understand their personal risk, although drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50.
Overdoses cause more deaths than gun violence and car crashes.
“Chemicals, they take you down,” he says, in the voice of someone with first-hand experience. “They make your life unmanageable.”
If you think your child has a problem, check out the free, downloadable resources at drugfree.org/resources.