Start a Conversation: 10 Questions Teens Ask About Drugs and Health
If you’ve never checked out the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s (NIDA) website, it’s a great resource for parents, families, and teens. They have information on everything from the brain and addiction, alcohol, marijuana and other drugs, vaping, to mental health.
The goal of NIDA is to help people get accurate, science-based information about drugs and health. For the past decade, researchers at NIDA have set aside a Chat Day each year during National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week to answer questions teens have about drugs and health. They have compiled teens’ 10 most frequently asked questions from more than 118,000 queries received. These questions and answers can help parents start a conversation about drugs and health with their kids.
The questions vary from, “Why do people use drugs?” to “How can I help someone if they don’t want help?” and “What is the worst drug?” Check out some of the questions and answers below, and visit the following link to learn more about the questions that our youth have.
Why do people take drugs when they know they’re bad?
Every day we make choices that affect our health. People take drugs for a lot of different reasons, like to deal with life’s challenges, to escape from reality, to relieve pain, or to try to fit in—just to name a few.
Some people can be aware of the negative effects of drugs on their health and in their life and still struggle to stop using them. This is because repeated drug use can lead to changes in the brain that make it hard to stop using them, even when people want to stop. When this happens, the person is experiencing a medical problem known as substance use disorder. Addiction is a severe form of substance use disorder.
All addictive drugs cause the brain to release the chemical dopamine. Dopamine is usually released after pleasurable and satisfying activities. Dopamine causes the brain to remember rewards, like food and sex, and reinforces the desire to seek them out again. Repeatedly using a drug floods the brain with more dopamine, which can change the way the brain responds to that drug.
With repeated use, a greater quantity of drug is needed to produce the same pleasurable effect. When the drug is not available, people may experience the negative symptoms of withdrawal, which may include stress, anxiety, depression, and sometimes physical symptoms such as sweating, vomiting and pain. Repeated cycles of drug use and withdrawal can disrupt brain function to the extent that people may have difficultly experiencing pleasure in their daily lives. At this point, many people continue drug use to avoid the lows caused by withdrawal rather than seek the highs they once experienced.
Fortunately, treatment can help people with a substance use disorder counteract these disruptive effects and lead healthier lives. The sooner a person receives treatment, the better the chance that they will recover.
How can I help someone with a problem stop taking drugs? How can I help if they don’t want help?
Asking how to help someone who may have a substance use disorder to stop taking drugs is one of the most common things we hear from both adults and teens. Fortunately, there are resources to help people affected by a friend or family member’s substance use or substance use disorder.
Supporting a loved one through a struggle with substance use can be difficult for adults and teens alike. This process can be especially complicated when someone is resistant to getting help. While you may not have control over someone else’s substance use, support is available to cope with how that substance use may affect you.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) operates the National Helpline 1-800-662-HELP (4357). This is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish). SAMHSA has resources available online for families coping with mental and substance use disorders and also provides a confidential online treatment locator.
If someone is experiencing an overdose, mental health crisis, or another emergency, call 9-1-1.
What is the worst drug?
It’s only natural to want to know what’s best or worst, good or bad. That’s why we love these types of lists! But in the case of drugs and alcohol, there isn’t a “worst” just as there isn’t a “best” drug.
We don’t define drugs as most or least harmful. All drugs have the potential to produce negative health effects or lead to a dangerous situation in the short or long term. Whether a drug causes a serious health issue—like a life-threatening overdose—can depend on how much a person uses, how they consume it, and other factors.
However, some drugs are so potent that a life-threatening overdose can occur the first time a person uses them. For example, the synthetic opioid fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin. Because fentanyl is often mixed with other drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and MDMA (Molly), fentanyl may be ingested unknowingly at unknown quantities, which can lead to overdose. Injecting potent drugs can be particularly dangerous because this route delivers the compounds more directly to the brain than ingesting or snorting drugs. Injection also carries the risks of injury and infection.
Similarly, some drugs are more frequently associated with addiction and dependence than others. For example, more than half of people who regularly use cigarettes meet the criteria for a tobacco use disorder, while only about 1 in 11 people who regularly use marijuana (cannabis) meet the criteria for a cannabis use disorder. Certain drugs can have a stronger effect on the brain than others. Research has shown that methamphetamine, in particular, may damage cells and structures within the brain that can cause long-term problems with emotion and memory.
Certain physical or mental illnesses, as well as family health history, also influence someone’s chances of developing an addiction or other negative health effects of drug use. Age is an especially important factor when calculating the risks of substance use. Because the brain develops through a person’s mid-twenties, teens and young adults tend to be more vulnerable to negative health effects of many drugs. All of this means certain substances may pose different risks to different people in different situations.
Going by the numbers, determining the deadliest drug also depends on perspective.
In 2019, an estimated 70,630 people died from a drug-involved overdose in the United States. The most common drugs associated with these fatal overdoses were synthetic opioids, including the highly potent synthetic opioid fentanyl.
However, the long-term health effects of cigarette smoking are responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year. That’s about 1,300 deaths every day.
And alcohol is the substance most frequently involved in deadly car crashes. Nearly one person died every 52 minutes from drunk driving crashes in 2019.
To put it simply, what’s the “worst” drug isn’t an easy question to answer, and it’s important to understand the risks of any substance. NIDA supports research to help us understand the effect of drugs on the brain, how to prevent people from starting to use drugs, and how to help them if they have substance use disorder. And NIDA for Teens has resources available to help teens learn about specific substances, mental health, and their growing brains.