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When does teenage experimentation with alcohol or drugs become a sign of mental health issues?

Alcohol and drugs have always been intertwined with problem kids as well as the definition of cool among a certain set of peers for teenagers. Studies show that the age at which you first try alcohol is an indication of whether you are likely to suffer from alcohol dependency. So kids who started drinking at age 12 were 40% likely to turn out to be alcoholics. That rate dropped to 16% when the age went up to 16-18.

The legal age for drinking of course varies across the various states in India but on average it is 25. And even then you need a permit or license to buy and consume alcohol. Of course it goes without saying that not too many youngsters wait that long to try their first drink. And by 25, for some, the daily consumption of alcohol with peers is often part of their culture or routine.

With drugs it is more complicated as they are simply outlawed but rampantly available to the person who is seeking a high and has the cash to buy it. The stigma associated with hard drugs like heroin or cocaine is not extended to drugs like marijuana or party drugs like amphetamines which means if one hangs out with a certain set of teenagers who like to experiment, chances are they have tried using drugs at some point as a youth.

So when does this consumption of alcohol or drugs signal a mental health problem – be it in terms of addiction or an underlying issue like depression or personality disorders? It’s important to watch for the signs. If kids will be kids and experiment with drugs and alcohol the first thing that adult caregivers/ parents/ guardians or custodians need to do is to sit them down and chat with them in a direct, responsible, measured, frank way about how substance and alcohol abuse impacts their lives. It is important not to condescend or talk down to them but understand they are bright functional beings who need to be aware that whatever their problems they should seek you first and not a bottle or a joint.

Secondly while it is expected that you will respect boundaries and privacy, it is also important to keep tabs on your kids and check for the alcohol or drug usage amongst their peers. If you observe them over a 6 to 12 month period and see signs of alcohol/ drugs tolerance/ withdrawal, higher consumption of alcohol or drugs over time, a great deal of effort spent in acquiring or sourcing alcohol or drugs, minimal interaction with friends or a decrease in interest in school or hobbies, efforts to cut down on use and so on then they may be at risk for addiction.

It is important that at this juncture the abuse is checked but it is equally important that the underlying symptom or cause for the addiction is correctly identified and help offered. This will allow the users to not just come out of the abuse cycle but also understand that a solution is possible. And that people are trying to help. Alcohol abuse or substance abuse could be stemming from a wide range of issues like depression or low self-esteem or anxiety or stress or abandonment issues. These can be correctly identified and minimized by trained mental health professionals. As parents or guardians it is important for the adults to spot the issue and offer help rather than try to stem the problem on their own.

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