Drinking and drug use are significant problems for a large number of American teenagers. However, not all teens begin or continue their involvement in substance use for the same reasons. In a study published in December 2013 in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, researchers from the Harvard Center for Addiction Medicine examined the underlying motivations for adolescent alcohol and drug intake. These researchers concluded that some teenagers drink or use drugs in order to enhance “positive” states of mind, while others are motivated by the desire to escape “negative” states of mind.
Background Statistics Of Teen Substance Abuse
Several ongoing federal projects track drug and alcohol use among U.S. teenagers. One of these projects, called Monitoring the Future, tracks use in eighth-graders, 10th-graders and high school seniors every year. Another project, called the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), tracks use in ninth-, 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders every two years. According to Monitoring the Future’s latest published results (from 2012), alcohol use has fallen sharply among American adolescents over the past few years. However, significant numbers of teens still drink or abuse drugs or medications such as marijuana, synthetic marijuana, prescription opioids (Vicodin and OxyContin), stimulants prescribed for ADHD (Adderall and Ritalin), sedatives, tranquilizers, MDMA (Ecstasy or Molly), hallucinogens, cocaine and inhalants. According to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System’s latest published results (from 2011), almost 71 percent of all U.S. high schoolers have consumed at least some alcohol, and nearly 39 percent of teens drink once a month or more. In addition, almost 21 percent of all high school students abuse some kind of prescription medication.
Positive Motivation vs. Negative Motivation
As a rule, people who drink or use drugs while in a “positive” state of mind feel that their substance use will enhance that state of mind and bring substantial reinforcement of pleasure. Conversely, people who drink or use drugs while in a “negative” state of mind typically feel a need to diminish or avoid the effects of classically negative emotions such as sadness, helplessness, anxiousness, fear or hopelessness. In the study, the Harvard Center for Addiction Medicine researchers used an examination of 109 teenagers between the ages of 14 and 19 to identify the motivations that typically lead adolescents to drink or use drugs. All of these teens were enrolled in outpatient treatment programs for drug or alcohol problems. Their motivations for substance abuse were explored upon admission into these programs, as well as three months after admission, six months after admission and one year after admission.
The researchers found that 53 percent of the study’s participants gave “negative” reasons for initiating or continuing substance use, while 47 percent gave “positive” reasons. When viewed alongside their peers with “positive” motivations, the teens with “negative” motivations were more deeply involved in drug or alcohol use, had a lengthier history of drug or alcohol treatment and had a significantly more anguished baseline state of mind.
Predicting Drug Treatment Outcomes
The study authors also wanted to know if a teenager’s underlying motivation for using drugs or alcohol affects his or her likelihood of benefiting from participation in a treatment program. Overall, they concluded that teens with “negative” motivations for substance use tend to benefit substantially from treatment participation, while teens with “positive” motivations for substance use do not typically improve much when they receive treatment. In addition, they concluded that “negative” and “positive” substance use motivations can predict the outcome of treatment success even when a range of other potential factors are taken into consideration. Examples of these additional factors include the desire to achieve abstinence from substance use, a belief in the ability to control one’s substance-using behaviors and any previous history of substance-related treatment.
The study’s authors believe that an understanding of any given teenager’s reasons for getting involved in substance use (and staying involved in substance use) provides uniquely valuable information that can be used to help abuse and addiction specialists devise appropriate treatments for their patients/clients. Treatments identified as helpful for “negatively” motivated adolescents generally center on improving the ability to cope successfully with unpleasant emotions and stressful situations. Treatments identified as helpful for “positively” motivated adolescents generally center on increasing awareness of the harmful aspects of substance use and improving users’ desire to change their ingrained substance-related attitudes.
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