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Understanding Teenage Alcohol Use

Embark Behavioral Health
March 26, 2021

Alcohol use among teens is nothing new. Testing boundaries and pushing limits is a normal part of teen behavior but continual substance abuse for teens is not. Teenage substance abuse can have negative consequences including a lifelong battle with addiction.  For many teens, drinking goes beyond social behavior and is used to mask or suppress the symptoms of otherwise untreated or undertreated pain, caused by trauma, loneliness, social stress, insecurity and anxiety. This is also commonly called self-medication.

Learn how and why teens often choose alcohol to self-medicate, and how you can help a teen overcome self-medication and get them treatment for addiction. 

How Teens Self-Medicate

It is not hard to understand how self-medication with alcohol occurs. One drink takes the edge off the pain and creates enough relief to pour a second drink.  Self-medication is a vicious cycle that temporarily relieves pain but causes more real-world problems with relationship issues, academic problems, and physical maladies and dependencies. 

Because alcohol is addictive, the more a teen uses alcohol to self-medicate, the more likely they are to develop an alcohol use disorder or suffer serious health or life side effects.

Why Teens Self-Medicate

Despite the known risks and campaigns against drunk driving, responsible drinking, and media portrayal of the negative side of too much drinking, teens continue to self-medicate with alcohol. Why? 

There are a lot of reasons why alcohol is used to self-medicate. Sometimes it is because other people do it and the social pressure to conform is immense. Some teens even learn it from their parents. Drinking to avoid sadness or escape difficult emotions is socially acceptable, but the stigma, lack of education about mental health, the difficulties of accessibility, and the expense of actual psychiatric or psychological treatment often stop people from getting the help they need to heal.

When your teen is emotionally hurt, whether it be from trauma or loss, abuse or mental illness, the pain is difficult to live with. Alcohol feels like it might at least deflect the pain for a while, even though your teen most likely realizes it is not going to solve their problems. 

Self-medicating is far more accessible than seeking mental health treatment, and your teen may even have friends who will indulge with them, making it seem like the most obvious choice, even when it is not the healthiest choice.

Co-Occurring Disorders

Formerly called dual diagnosis, when someone has both an alcohol use issue and a mental health issue, it is referred to as a co-occurring disorder. In common terms, it is called taking a bad situation and making it worse. It doesn’t even matter which comes first, the drinking or the mental illness, because your drinking impacts your mental illness just as negatively as your mental illness impacts your alcohol abuse.

Like pouring oil on a fire, drinking to self-medicate for a mental health issue is extremely serious. Drinking heavily can also disrupt the neurological functioning of the brain of your brain, including developing an addiction. This makes it more complicated to treat and recover from both issues, and often can actually create more emotional pain and stress for you.

Is Self-Medication Safe?

No, self-medicating through alcohol or other altering substances is never safe. Consider taking any type of substance, even over-the-counter medication like cough syrup or ibuprofen, and consuming more than the recommended dosage. Is that safe? Many of those medications are also strongly recommended to not consume more than the recommended times per day or for an extended number of days without consulting a doctor. It is not safe to self-medicate on any substance, and alcohol is definitely included in that list. 

For anyone under the age of 21, all alcohol exceeds the daily recommended intake of alcohol.

Does Self-Medication Work?

From a purely scientific and medical standpoint, self-medication with alcohol is largely ineffective. Because drinking does not solve your problems or cure your pain, and because invariably, it creates more problems, including health and safety issues, self-medication usually has the opposite effect. One of the reasons that mental healthcare exists is to heal and restore both mental and physical health when you have any type of mental health or substance use issue. Seeking appropriate medical treatment is the exact opposite of self-medication, and can have the opposite effect on your life, too.

Using alcohol to self-medicate for pain or untreated mental health issues is only going to add to your problems. If you self-medicate for trauma, loss, or other pain, you may develop not only an addiction to alcohol but also a mental health issue. These are all no-win situations. No matter where you fall in these scenarios, you can get the mental health assistance you need now to heal from the inside out.

Embark Behavioral Health can help you with alcohol use and mental health issues. Call 1-855-809-0409 today. Heal the source of your pain and be safe and healthy.

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of clinics and programs offering premier mental health treatment for adolescents and young adults. Dedicated to its mission of reversing the trends of adolescent and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark is unlike any other behavioral health organization in the United States. Embark offers a full continuum and spectrum of services, a unique 25-years of specialization, a deep legacy of serving youth, and a set of internationally validated outcomes that drive treatment in real-time. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including wilderness therapy, long-term residential treatment centers, short-term residential treatment centers, day treatment, partial hospitalization (PHP) programs, intensive outpatient programs (IOP), outpatient, and virtual counseling.