Making the Connections: 4 Key Insights About Mental Well-being and Drug Abuse

For years, our country has been fighting a nationwide prescription drug epidemic from all angles, including through treatment, recovery, prevention, policy, and public awareness. The good news is that these efforts are starting to make a positive impact. In 2018, the number of drug overdose deaths declined for the first time since 1990 (by 5.1%), according to preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These encouraging findings are in part due to more cautious prescribing of opioids by doctors, however, overdose deaths from other classes of drugs (fentanyl, stimulants) continue to rise. “While the declining trend of overdose deaths is an encouraging sign,” says Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, “by no means have we declared victory against the epidemic or addiction in general. This crisis developed over two decades and it will not be solved overnight.

It is impossible to successfully address the prescription drug epidemic without also addressing our nation’s mental health crisis. There has been a significant increase in anxiety, depression, and suicides over the past decade–particularly among teens and young adults, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the American Psychological Association, the National Institute of Mental Health, and others. There are many possible catalysts behind these concerning trends, but self-medicating, excessive technology use, poor physical health, and nonexistent or ineffective education have been cited in a number of studies as likely contributing factors.

1. The Link Between Mental Health and Drug Abuse

The rate of depression among teens has risen by 60% and suicide deaths have increased by 56%. Children with a mental health disorder are at a greater risk of later substance use disorder, especially if undiagnosed, as mental illness and substance abuse are often intertwined (referred to as dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder). And even those without a mental illness per se will still face environmental challenges that could impact their mental well-being and the likelihood of drug use, such as a family member with addiction, life transitions, and academic pressures. According to a University of Florida study, adolescents listed school-related depression and stress as the biggest factor leading to the non-medical use of stimulants. Whether chronic mental illness or acute circumstantial duress, many are choosing to self-medicate rather than seek proper treatment from a doctor. Shame is one of the main reasons behind this. Mental health challenges are common, but some teens may not realize that. They might not know what resources are available to help them cope with their emotions and the stigma compels them to try to handle it by themselves. By normalizing the dialogue–at the dinner table, in classrooms, in the media–we can create a more compassionate, nonjudgmental culture that empowers adolescents to ask for help when they need it.

2. Human Connection Above WiFi Connection

Psychologist and iGen author Dr. Jean Twenge believes that the digital-dependence and excessive social media use that is standard among today’s teens plays a huge role in their unhappiness. Sleep deprivation, depression, suicide, and other poor outcomes are at an all-time high for teens, says Twenge, and these trends really spiked in 2012, the first year that most Americans owned smartphones. Teens have historically been preoccupied with external validation and upward social comparison, generally speaking, but now those tendencies (and insecurities) are amplified in the age of pervasive and instantly accessible social media. Dr. Mary Fristad, Dept. of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at The Ohio State University, says it’s like “taking what happens in typical adolescent development and putting it on steroids.” They become consumed by efforts to prove themselves online and this pursuit actually compromises their most basic needs. Humans are a social species by nature–adequate face-to-face interaction is crucial for our mental health–and communicating through screens is just not cutting it. Student involvement in the school community and extracurricular activities can satisfy that social need and it also tends to negatively correlate with drug use. Technology, of course, has its benefits, too, including offering valuable information and hotlines for people seeking help. It is important we reinforce to kids a healthy relationship with technology–a reasonable amount of screen time combined with meaningful, in-person connections with friends to curb harmful outcomes.

3.Achieving Mental Wellness Through Physical Health

Focusing on physical health is a key factor in addressing your mental health needs. The healthiest teens partake in regular exercise, spend time outside in the sunlight, and follow a nutritious diet. There are so many gadgets and apps to play with that adolescents can fall into a habit of spending hours being sedentary indoors–on their phone or playing video games–at the expense of developing important physical health routines. Research shows that exercise alleviates depression and anxiety and, in turn, combats addiction. Fitness boosts mood, reduces stress hormones, fosters body positivity, and improves sleep. Sufficient sleep is essential. With the prominence of smartphones, young people are often spending an exorbitant amount of time on their phones in bed each night, a habit that can cut into needed rest. The bright blue light emitted from phone screens exacerbates the problem, sending a signal to the brain that it’s daytime and tricking you into feeling wide awake at night. Dr. Twenge recommends that kids and teens leave the phone in another room when they go to bed and turn off notifications whenever possible to minimize distraction. “Sleep is so crucial for mental health and making good decisions,” says Twenge, “including decisions around drug and alcohol use and prescription drug misuse. Kids who aren’t sleeping enough aren’t thinking straight.”

4. Drug Abuse Prevention and Mental Health Education

With the dramatic rise in suicides and opioid deaths, there is no question that understanding how to safely navigate both mental health and prescription drug use has become a critical life skill in the 21st century. Mental health, substance use disorder, and prescription drug safety must be an educational priority in this current climate. Educators, parents, doctors, and pharmacists should be teaching and reinforcing mental health and drug abuse prevention best practices to kids; including drug refusal tactics, signs that a peer needs help, how to manage prescription medication responsibly, how to recognize when in need of mental health or addiction support, what resources are available to them, and other important tools. Evidence-based interventions like these can have a profound effect on students, building their confidence and emotional intelligence and preventing or significantly mitigating negative outcomes.

The Prescription Drug Safety Network

The need for prescription drug prevention education for young people is more urgent than ever. The Prescription Drug Safety Network (PDSN) is a national coalition of corporations, nonprofits, elected officials, and educators committed to empowering youth with the skills and knowledge to make safe decisions about prescription medications and related topics through digital education. With the support of its private and public sector partners, PDSN aims to make a collective impact through population-level education that reinforces healthy and safe behaviors.

Learn more about PDSN and how to become part of the movement.