Substance Misuse by Middle Schoolers: A Growing Concern

Understanding how the disease of addiction develops is crucial to determining how it can be arrested, or ideally even prevented. While addiction can emerge at any point in a person’s life, from pre-teens to seniors, of particular concern to many in the field is a growing trend of middle school children trying illicit substances for the first time, and then progressing into a full-blown substance misuse disorder as the child enters high school or early adulthood. Beyond the sheer shock value of tweens using drugs, understanding how children gain access to these substances, where they learn the rituals of misuse, and whether current anti-drug educational programs are effectual can provide substantial insight into the disease process and progression.

What substances are middle schoolers using?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) conducts studies on all aspects of addiction. In the data from 2015 (the most recent available year), they found that 28% of middle school student self-reported alcohol use. The average age of first use of alcohol was 11. Marijuana was the second most commonly reported drug used; nearly 12% of middle school students reported smoking marijuana in the past year.  The third most misused substance was inhalants, possibly due to the ease of access. Eleven percent of middle school children said they used inhalants. The final two commonly misused substances for middle schoolers are medications taken from the home, including over the counter cough medicines, and anabolic steroids (3%). Because children of this age have fewer financial and social resources to access these substances, their profile of misuse is different from an adult who may be able to go to a doctor or find a substance from illicit connections.  Overall, 1 in 8 middle school students has tried, used, or become dependent on one of these substances.

Effects on development

Researchers now agree that the human brain doesn’t finish its development until a person is in their mid-20’s. Every year before that sees the brain growing, learning, and adapting to stimuli. When those stimuli are healthy and challenging, the person learns coping mechanisms and skills and that will serve well for a lifetime. However, when the developing brain is under the barrage of misuse of a substance or substances, normal developmental milestones may not be reached. In practice, this can mean physical, mental, or emotional setbacks.

Suggestions, not solutions

There has yet to be one solution for the problem of substance misuse disorders. On a global and on a national level, no one model has been able to prevent children or adults from developing these issues. However, there are some guidelines that can help start discussions with young people, giving them more information so they can make better choices.

  • Keep the lines of communication open
  • Be clear that substance misuse, while not a moral failing, is not part of a healthy lifestyle
  • Stay involved as a positive influence in the child’s life

These suggestions, while simple, speak to the universal human need for communication, encouragement, and education. With these in place, it may not be possible to prevent all substance misuse issues, but the reduce their effects on our young people and our society.

The Ammon Foundation blog shares news, tools, and tips for nearly every stage of recovery. Our scholarship foundation has helped people in recovery achieve their academic and professional goals, and live lives filled with purpose and meaning!