Drug and alcohol abuse has always been a major problem for many young people. 

According to the 2014 Monitoring the Future survey of drug use among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders, the reported use of illicit drugs has generally gone down though alcohol, cannabis, and tobacco are still perennial favourites.  In 2014 alone, 19 percent of 12th graders admitted to binge drinking though this was much lower than in previous years.   And while tobacco use has plummeted in recent years, illicit drug use, including cannabis has shown little change over the past two decades.

Polydrug use (use of more than one drug over time) appears fairly stable over time as well.  Based on different studies, the incidence of polydrug use has ranged from 18 percent to 34 percent in adolescents younger than age 16.  Though the drugs of choice tend to be alcohol, tobacco, and cannabis, more exotic drugs, including inhalants, prescription drugs, and "party" drugs such as ecstasy are often abused as well.  Along with the health problems associated with sharing needles and internal organ damage, alcohol-related motor accidents are the single leading cause of teen deaths in the United States.  Overdose deaths linked to drugs such as heroin, amphetamines, and prescription drugs have also increased steadily over the past 10 years.

To gain a better understanding of why polydrug use is so popular among adolescents, researchers have been examining the role that psychological distress can play in substance use.  The link between depression and alcohol use appears particularly strong in younger adolescents (especially female adolescents), even when other factors such as behavioural problems and economic disadvantage are taken into account.  Depression and anxiety also appear to predict tobacco, cannabis, and inhalant use while anxiety alone appears to be a strong predictor of alcohol use.

So what does this mean for adolescents who are at risk for abusing drugs and alcohol?  A new research study published in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors examines the role of psychological distress in drug use for a large sample of Australian adolescents.  A team of researchers led by Adrian B. Kelly of the University of Queensland surveyed 10,273 students (of whom 49.3 percent are male) in Grades 7, 9, and 11 using a series of measures.  These measures included items relating to recent drug use, psychological distress, peer drug use (whether they were aware of drug use in friends), and related factors such as family income, academic success, place of birth, and history of school misconducts.  

Based on statistical analysis of the results, the participants were broken down into three classes: nondrug users (47.7 percent), mainly alcohol users (44.1 percent), and polydrug users (8.2 percent).  Polydrug users reported consuming alcohol and tobacco on at least six occasions in the previous month and to smoke cannabis at least once in the previous month.  The mainly alcohol group reported drinking at least once in the previous month with little or no drug use.  While the proportion of polydrug users is lower than what has been previously reported in national or international studies, this was probably because younger students were included.

Looking at psychological distress, only 11.39 percent of the non-drug user group were deemed to be high risk as opposed to  27.21 percent of polydrug users.  Compared to alcohol users, polydrug users were also more likely to be older and to have a history of psychological distress, school suspensions, academic failure, and peer drug use.  Adolescents from poorer families were also more likely to be drug/alcohol abusers than more well-off participants. 

Despite the evidence for a strong link between polydrug use and psychological distress, it really isn't possible to make any assumptions about cause.  Since this study focused on adolescents at only one point in time, there was no way to tell whether psychological distress led to polydrug use or vice versa.  Adrian Kelly and his co-authors also point out several limitations of his study.  Along with testing participants at different points in time, future studies will also need to look at the severity of drug use rather than whether or not adolescents have used drugs or alcohol recently.  Though there was no real evidence of gender differences in polydrug use or psychological distress, that may just be due to the measures used in this study.  

Still, this research suggests that psychological distress can be a significant predictor of polydrug use in adolescents, even when other factors such as behaviour problems or peer drug use are taken into account.  While more research is definitely needed to explore this link further, treatment programs aimed at helping adolescents with depression or anxiety also need to focus on potential drug problems.  Also, adolescents with known substance abuse issues should be assessed for possible mental health problems as well.   

Making the transition from child to adult can be extremely difficult for many adolescents.  Along with emotional issues and peer pressure, the easy availability of drugs and alcohol are always going to be a concern for parents and teachers.  Recognizing the link between psychological distress and polydrug use can provide better options for stopping problems before they can start.

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