Your biggest questions on teen substance use, answered

Posted on 02/20/17 09:34:am

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Alcohol and drugs are affecting our teens at younger ages and in more dangerous ways. School staff members are often the first ones to notice signs of possible substance use. Amy Kuechler, PsyD, attending psychologist for the adolescent dual diagnosis program at Rogers Memorial Hospital–Brown Deer, has answered some answers for parents, friends and those who work with students in schools:

What are the common signs?

It can be difficult to recognize signs of substance use in adolescents because it’s a time of major change. When a child begins using substances, you will likely notice major changes that last a week or longer. Be on the lookout for unusual moodiness; a drop in grades; and risky behaviors such as criminal activity, skipping class or drawing closer to a group children with risky behaviors. Significant changes at home can also trigger substance use.

How are students hiding substances?

Many schools are finding substances and related contraband in lockers. It’s becoming more common for students to store clear alcohol in water bottles so they can drink at school. Probably the most difficult substances to monitor are prescription pills. Students can easily hide their ADHD medications in their pockets or backpacks and sell them to classmates.

If you have suspicions, how should you start a conversation?

Whether you are a parent or a school staff member, you can approach the student and tell them about the changes you’ve noticed. Adolescents want to know that someone cares, so it’s important to let them know you’re concerned. Then approach the school counselor, who can follow up with parents. If a student does admit to using substances, encourage the family to request a free, confidential screening to begin the treatment process.

Why is early treatment important?

Ninety percent of adults who are abusing drugs and alcohol started using before the age of 18. When students put harmful chemicals into their vulnerable, developing brain, they’re altering their brain’s pathways in a harmful way. By treating substance use early on, we’re increasing the likelihood the child will enjoy an addiction-free adulthood.

How does treatment help?

Our adolescent dual diagnosis partial hospital program can treat substance use and underlying mental health concerns at the same time. A child with depression, for example, likely has a distorted, negative view of his or herself, their family and their life. We would help modify the child’s perspective and teach them how to look at things more realistically.

If a child is using drugs or alcohol to cope with anxiety, the program will offer them alternative coping mechanisms, and teach them how to re-frame their situation and ride out anxiety. Sometimes anxiety can be helpful to students. It motivates them to study for tests or practice before we have to present to an audience.

The Adolescent Recovery Program, a new residential treatment option for teens with mental health and substance use disorders, will soon open at Rogers Memorial Hospital–West Allis. To schedule a visit from Dr. Kuechler or other Rogers representatives to your school, contact outreach representative Bre Meyer at 262-646-1767 or email bmeyer@rogersbh.org.

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