As treatment specialists, counselors, and educators, it is the job of many to keep an eye on substance abuse statistics. It is also important for teachers, law enforcement, government, and parents to follow and be aware of what teens are up to, and how their drug and alcohol use is increasing or decreasing. But we need to be careful that we do not put too much weight behind numbers and statistics. These can easily be manipulated, and can either frighten us or lure us into a false sense of security. A more accurate way to look at adolescent drug abuse would be to study 5 or 10 year trends, which will tell if the increase or decrease is likely to have significant meaning in the long run.
Monitoring the Future (MTF) is a survey that measures drug, alcohol, and tobacco use and the attitudes of teenagers toward these substances. MTF has given us data on our nation’s teens since 1975. The survey is funded by NIDA and is conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research.
The results from the MTF survey from 2009 are in general very positive. According to the research, there were drops in tobacco, methamphetamine (from 2.3% to 1.6%), cocaine (from 4.4% to 3.4%), alcohol, and hallucinogen (from 5.9% to 4.7%) use among 8-12th graders. It seems that adolescents’ attitudes towards substance abuse are also more encouraging. Teens now see certain drugs and alcohol as harmful, and do not believe these drugs are very available to students anymore. These trends have been positive in these areas for the past 5 years, as more and more students become more educated and aware of the risks for drug abuse.
These trends are great; they are exactly what we want to see among our young people. But we have to be careful not to get too relaxed and think we are doing a good enough job with drug prevention. We still need to educate more youth, and there are still plenty of kids that are abusing these substances that need our help.
On the other hand, marijuana is still being used just as often by students as five years ago, and teens don’t really even see marijuana as dangerous. Prescription drug abuse has been steadily increasing, as well as inhalant abuse. These two forms of drug abuse are the newest trend, and they are replacing the old ways of getting high. But again, if we focus too much on an increase in numbers of kids getting high with inhalants or prescription painkillers, we can trick ourselves into generalizing that all teens are doing these things, or at least are exposed to them. We need to empower our adolescents and let them know that they are not alone, that there are many other teens that have made the commitment to stay clean also.
With cautious optimism we should prepare our students for the world and its peer pressure. Educate them, teach them the risks, and warn them about statistical trends. But then encourage them and give them confidence because they can indeed be one of the many that do stay clean.