I am aware that addiction is a disease and not a choice. The science is very clear on what happens to a person’s brain once they are addicted to drugs. However, the first time that person picks up a drug and decides to use it is a choice. We all go through hard times in life and not everyone becomes addicted to drugs. I’m having a hard time understanding what makes a person start using drugs in the first place and I’d like to learn more about that.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people are most likely to begin misusing drugs including tobacco, alcohol and illegal and prescription drugs during adolescence and young adulthood. In fact, by the time they are seniors, almost 70 percent of high school students will have tried alcohol, half will have taken an illegal drug, nearly 40 percent will have smoked a cigarette, and more than 20 percent will have used a prescription drug for a nonmedical purpose.
There are many reasons adolescents use these substances, including the desire for new experiences, an attempt to deal with problems or perform better in school, and simple peer pressure. Adolescents are “biologically wired” to seek new experiences and take risks, as well as to find their own identity.
Many factors influence whether an adolescent tries drugs, including the availability of drugs within the neighborhood, community and school and whether the adolescent’s friends are using them. The family environment is also important: Violence, physical or emotional abuse, mental illness, or drug use in the household increase the likelihood an adolescent will use drugs. Finally, an adolescent’s inherited genetic vulnerability; personality traits like poor impulse control or a high need for excitement; mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety or ADHD; and beliefs such as that drugs are “cool” or harmless make it more likely that an adolescent will use drugs.
The teenage years are a critical window of vulnerability to substance use disorders, because the brain is still developing and malleable (a property known as neuroplasticity), and some brain areas are less mature than others. The parts of the brain that process feelings of reward and pain—crucial drivers of drug use—are the first to mature during childhood. What remains incompletely developed during the teen years are the prefrontal cortex and its connections to other brain regions. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for assessing situations, making sound decisions, and controlling our emotions and impulses; typically this circuitry is not mature until a person is in his or her mid-20s.
Most teens do not escalate from trying drugs to developing an addiction or other substance use disorder; however, even experimenting with drugs is a problem. Drug use can be part of a pattern of risky behavior including unsafe sex, driving while intoxicated, or other hazardous, unsupervised activities. In cases when a teen does develop a pattern of repeated use, it can pose serious social and health risks. To learn more visit www.drugabuse.gov.
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