During the past year, adolescents, families, educators, and health care providers have had to press forward through myriad challenges and stressors with flexibility and adaptability. With appropriate concern, we ask ourselves how children and youth are coping emotionally with the unprecedented changes of the past year.
Adolescent substance use represents an important area of concern. What has happened during the pandemic? Has youth substance use increased or decreased? Has access to substances increased or decreased, has monitoring and support for at-risk youth increased or decreased?
The answers to these questions are mixed. If anything, the pandemic has highlighted the heterogeneity of adolescent substance use. Now is a key time for assessment, support, and conversation with teens and families.
Monitoring the Future (MTF), a nationally representative annual survey, has provided a broad perspective on trends of adolescent substance use for decades.1 The MTF data is usually collected from February to May and was cut short in 2020 because of school closures associated with the pandemic. The sample size, though still nationally representative, was about a quarter of the typical volume.
Some of the data are encouraging, including a flattening out of previous years’ stark increase in vaping of both nicotine and cannabis products (though overall numbers remain alarmingly high). Other data are more concerning including a continued increase in misuse of cough medicine, amphetamines, and inhalants among the youngest cohort surveyed (eighth graders). However, these data were largely representative of prepandemic circumstances.
The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected risk and protective factors for teen drug and alcohol use. Most notably, it has had a widely observed negative impact on adolescent mental health, across multiple disease categories.2 In addition, the cancellation of in-person academic and extracurricular activities such as arts and athletics markedly increased unstructured time, a known associated factor for higher-risk activities including substance use. This has also led to decreased contact with many supportive adults such as teachers and coaches. On the other hand, some adolescents now have more time with supportive parents and caregivers, more meals together, and more supervision, all of which are associated with decreased likelihood of substance use disorders.
The highly variable reasons for substance use affect highly variable pandemic-related changes in use. Understanding the impetus for use is a good place to start conversation and can help providers assess risk of escalation during the pandemic. Some teens primarily use for social enhancement while others use as a means of coping with stress or to mask or escape negative emotions. Still others continue use because of physiological dependence, craving, and other symptoms consistent with use disorders.
Highlighting the heterogeneity of this issue, one study assessing use early in the pandemic showed a decrease in the percentage of teens who use substances but an increase in frequency of use for those who are using.3 Though expected, an increase in frequency of use by oneself as compared with peers was also notable. Using substances alone is associated with more severe use disorders, carries greater risk of overdose, and can increase shame and secrecy, further fueling use disorders.
The pandemic has thus represented a protective pause for some experimental or socially motivated substance-using teens who have experienced a period of abstinence even if not fully by choice. For others, it has represented an acute amplification of risk factors and use has accelerated. This latter group includes those whose use represents an effort to cope with depression, anxiety, and loneliness or for whom isolation at home represents less monitoring, increased access, and greater exposure to substances.
Over the past year, in the treatment of adolescents struggling with substance use, many clinicians have observed a sifting effect during these unprecedented social changes. Many youth, who no longer have access to substances, have found they can “take it or leave it.” Other youth have been observed engaging in additional risk or going to greater lengths to access substances and continue their use. For both groups and everyone in between, this is an important time for screening, clinical assessment, and support.
While anticipating further research and data regarding broad substance use trends, including MTF data from 2021, recognizing that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is individual, with marked differences from adolescent to adolescent, will help us continue to act now to assess this important area of adolescent health. The first step for primary care providers is unchanged: to routinely screen for and discuss substance use in clinical settings.
Two brief, validated, easily accessible screening tools are available for primary care settings. They can both be self-administered and take less than 2 minutes to complete. Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment and the Brief Screener for Tobacco, Alcohol and other Drugs can both be used for youth aged 12-17 years.4,5 Both screens are available online at drugabuse.gov.6
Routine screening will normalize conversations about substance use and healthy choices, provide opportunities for positive reinforcement, identify adolescents at risk, increase comfort and competence in providing brief intervention, and expedite referrals for additional support and treatment.
A false assumption that a particular adolescent isn’t using substances creates a missed opportunity to offer guidance and treatment. An oft-overlooked opportunity is that of providing positive reinforcement for an adolescent who isn’t using any substances or experimenting at all. Positive reinforcement is a strong component of reinforcing health maintenance.
Parent guidance and family assessment will also be critical tools. Parents and caregivers play a primary role in substance use treatment for teens and have a contributory impact on risk through both genes and environment. Of note, research suggests a moderate overall increase in adult substance use during the pandemic, particularly substances that are widely available such as alcohol. Adolescents may thus have greater access and exposure to substance use.
A remarkably high percentage, 42%, of substance-using teens surveyed early in the pandemic indicated that they were using substances with their parents.3 Parents, who have equally been challenged by the pandemic, may need guidance in balancing compassion and support for struggling youth, while setting appropriate limits and maintaining expectations of healthy activities.
Unprecedented change and uncertainty provide an opportunity to reassess risks and openly discuss substance use with youth and families. Even with much on our minds during the COVID-19 pandemic, we can maintain focus on this significant risk to adolescent health and wellness. Our efforts now, from screening to treatment for adolescent substance use should be reinforced rather than delayed.
Jackson is assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont, Burlington.
2. Jones EAK et al. Int J Environ Res Public Health, 2021;18(5):2470.
3. Dumas TM et al. J Adolesc Health, 2020;67(3):354-61.
4. Levy S et al. JAMA Pediatr. 2014;168(9):822-8.
5. Kelly SM et al. Pediatrics. 2014;133(5):819-26.
6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Adolescent Substance Use Screening Tools. 2016 Apr 27. https://www.drugabuse.gov/nidamed-medical-health-professionals/screening-tools-prevention/screening-tools-adolescent-substance-use/adolescent-substance-use-screening-tools
This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.