Adolescence is a time full of changes that are both exciting and challenging. Experiencing trauma during this time can make the experience even more complicated and put the adolescent at risk for a cascade of physical and mental health effects. One such effect is an increased risk of developing an addiction. Understanding the causes of trauma and the signs of substance use in youth can help you look out for the adolescents in your life.
When a child or adolescent experiences a traumatic or extremely stressful event, they are considered to have experienced an adverse childhood experience. Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, are types of trauma that a person was exposed to before turning 18. ACEs include:
Experiencing ACEs is incredibly common. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 60% of those surveyed between 2015 and 2017 reported having experienced at least one ACE. What is even more striking is that over 15% of people report experiencing a least four ACEs. ACES have a cascade of negative effects, and these effects grow with the number of ACES one experiences. This means that well over half of the United States adult population is grappling with the effects of trauma in childhood and adolescence. It is a very real public health issue that needs to be understood.
People who experience ACEs are more likely to develop physical and mental health conditions. The chronic conditions that greatly impact a person’s quality of life include asthma, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and obesity. Experiencing ACEs can also elevate the risk of developing depression and experiencing and acting on suicidal ideation. The effects of ACEs can also show up later in life as risky decisions about one’s health. These include substance use and abuse, unprotected and otherwise risky sexual activity, and not engaging in regular physical identity.
Substance abuse is particularly concerning for those who have experienced ACEs. Living in a household where substances are used puts an individual at twice the risk of forming an addiction compared to those who lived in a substance-free environment. A 2008 study published in Addictive Behaviors also suggests that the risk of developing addiction doubles with each type of ACE one experiences. For the 15% of the population that has experienced at least 4 ACEs, this is a dangerous reality.
ACEs can cause these disruptions in one’s life because of the impact that toxic stress has on the body. Toxic stress is the state that the body enters when enduring prolonged stress. When someone is in a chronically stressful situation, such as living in an unsafe or unstable home environment, their body is on alert. The nervous system is flooded with hormones associated with the fight-or-flight response in an attempt to keep the person safe from suspected danger. As this continues, the immune system can be affected. This is because of the impact of the nervous system’s response on heart rate and blood pressure, which in turn damage the immune system.
Many of the effects of ACEs are manifested in negative health outcomes in the brain and body, but they do not stop there. According to the CDC, experiencing ACEs is also correlated with many negative social outcomes. They reported that those who have experienced ACEs are more likely to be unemployed and not finish high school. These outcomes greatly limit a person’s social mobility and can make it harder for them to lead a fulfilling life.
While traumatic events can happen at any point in a person’s life, those that happen during childhood and adolescence can have an especially detrimental impact. Recovering is not simply about forgetting what happened and moving on. Those who experience ACEs carry that weight physically in their body, and it can spill out into other areas of their life.
The best way to protect against the impact of ACEs is to outright prevent them. After the fact, the best way to mitigate their capacity for harm is through early intervention. If you know an adolescent who has gone through a traumatic experience or who is in a chronically stressful household, you can take action. You can offer support and encouragement and generally be a consistent ally.
It is also important to be aware of the warning signs of substance use in adolescents, which include:
A single item on this list by itself does not necessarily indicate a problem with substance use, but they become concerning when they add up. If the changes are unexpected and extreme in nature, it’s more reason to intervene. Encouraging them to seek professional mental health treatment can help guide them toward a path of future wellness and success. There are many mental health professionals who specialize in working with adolescents. Whether you are explicitly noticing warning signs of substance abuse or not, being proactive in this situation can ward off a lot of harm.
Sage Recovery is able to provide services to both adults and adolescents. Our trained mental health professionals understand the unique needs of adolescents. They can create a treatment plan that will help an adolescent to thrive. Whether the adolescent’s coping with the effects of trauma, showing early signs of substance use issues, or just going through normal teenage changes, therapy can benefit them. It’ll offer coping strategies and communication skills to meet their needs, regulate their emotions, and form healthy relationships. Sage Recovery offers in-person and online therapy, various groups, and a robust alumni community. Call us at (512) 306-1394 to learn about our different treatment options and get started today.