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Vail Valley Voices: Serious problem for teens

April Wilson
valleyvoices@vaildaily.com
Vail, CO Colorado

In discussing addiction, it is important to begin with a definition. Addictions are habitual, intentional behaviors that become excessive and produce serious consequences. These behaviors are stable or increase across time, and individuals have difficulty stopping them despite experiencing negative consequences as a result. The most current models of treatment for addiction address physiological, psychological and social components.

Drug use during adolescence is especially dangerous. According to the Society for Neuroscience, research has shown that during adolescence, the brain continues to go through a myriad of changes. It is now known that areas controlling planning, decision-making, cognition and reasoning have not reached their adult dimensions until an individual is in his early 20s. Additionally, the ventral striatum, the brain’s primary reward center, is more active in adolescents than in adults. This leaves the adolescence brain at much greater risk. Many scientists believe that because adolescents are still experiencing this growth and maturing of their brains, it leaves them at much higher risk of developing an addiction.

According to the Society and Management of Addictions, “More than any other age group adolescents are at risk for substance addiction, and more than any other age group they risk permanent intellectual and emotional damage due to the effects of drugs.” One of the primary explanations for this is that psychoactive substances frequently act upon the brain’s neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are the brain’s means for nerves to communicate with each other. Although the mechanism is not completely understood at this time, it is suspected that because of this action on the neurotransmitters and the pleasure center, habits and choices associated with the use of psychoactive substances becomes slowly ingrained and hard-wired into the brain itself. “Repeated action becomes habit and the habits of thought, perception, and reasoning developed in childhood and adolescence can stay with a person throughout his or her lifetime.”

Addiction in adolescents and children is a serious problem. In the 2007-2008 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey for Eagle County, 54 percent of high school youth admitted to consuming alcohol before the age of 14, approximately 47 percent consuming alcohol in the last 30 days, and approximately 21 percent smoking marijuana in the last 30 days. Early detection and treatment is essential to heading off the development of substance addiction in adolescents. It is crucial to realize that both the teens and their families need to be educated that overcoming an addiction is not a matter of will power. Because the drugs have actually changed some of the structures within the brain, treatment by a professional is needed. Ideally, addiction must be prevented, or at a minimum, addressed early enough to provide time for a full recovery.

April Wilson, LSW, works at the Samaritan Counseling Center in Edwards.


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