Opinion: Teens, Substance Misuse, and the Ongoing Pandemic

Photo: Comedian John Mulaney who entered rehab this week

By Lisa Gibalerio, Prevention Specialist, Wayside Youth and Family Support Network; Program Coordinator, Belmont Wellness Coalition

When my daughter told me last night that her favorite comedian, John Mulaney, had relapsed after 15 years of sobriety and had entered a rehabilitation program, I thought: he is not alone.

The disruption of life caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on those with substance use disorders or mental health issues. Anyone who was already struggling with these challenges before the pandemic was catapulted into a perfect storm of increased stress, social isolation, and reduced access to care and support. Though relapse is often a part of recovery, 2020 has seen an uptick in both substance misuse relapses and mental health disorders.

How has all this impacted teens in Belmont?

When the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) was last administered in Belmont, in March of 2019, over 25 percent of teens reported drinking, vaping, and/or using marijuana. We do not have data since the start of the pandemic, but it’s fair to say that the stress levels on young people in Belmont have not abated. 2020 saw new fears of a potentially life-threatening illness, disruption of the school year, cancellation of long-awaited traditional celebrations like graduations and birthday parties, and a lack of job opportunities and curtailment of college experiences. How could they not be affected?

In such an environment, some young people may turn to inappropriate substances to cope. Some may gain access to substances, such as alcohol, via older siblings, older friends, or at home. In many instances, students reported, their parents do not even know that they are drinking – neither how frequently, nor how much.

What’s wrong with coping this way? The danger is that, due to their developing brains, when teens drink, they tend to drink too much. This puts them at risk for alcohol poisoning, car crashes, injuries, violence, and/or unprotected/unwanted sex.

As parents, we may feel helpless on how to impact this. However, there are concrete things parents can do to reduce substance misuse among their kids:

  • Talk with your kids about the impact of substance misuse.
  • Set your expectations in a clear and concise way.
  • Listen to your kids.
  • Reach out to their friends’ parents. If there is a gathering at a house (hopefully Covid-safe!) – text the parents ahead of the event: ask if they will be home and monitoring the event.
  • Wait up at curfew time.
  • Do not relax your family rules during the holidays; it can be difficult to return to previous expectations.

Remember, every year that a teen does not use alcohol, the odds of lifelong dependence decrease by 15 percent.

2020 has been an incredibly stressful year, for adults, for kids – for all of us. And, if we work together, we can help ensure that our kids stay healthy and safe.

If you have questions, please reach out to me at Lisa_gibalerio@Waysideyouth.org.

Wishing you all safe and happy holidays.

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