October 23, 2021

What Does Teen Substance Use in Cortland County Look Like?


Currently, 21.0% of Cortland County teens from grades 7-12 have used alcohol in the past 30 days, 14.4% have used marijuana within the past 30 days and 3.2% have misused prescription drugs at least once during the past 30 days. (2019 YDS Survey). Such illicit substance use, which most commonly occurs with alcohol, marijuana, and prescription drugs, is an issue for a number of reasons. One of the biggest concerns of substance abuse is overdose, which can lead to a rapid death if not treated promptly. Substance abuse can also lead to a variety of negative behavioral changes, such as lower performance in school, increased moodiness and irritability, and a desire to avoid loved ones.

So then, why are teens using substances?

Teens Biology and Hormones are Working Against Them

One of the answers lies in the simple biology of the teen brain. For instance, did you know that certain structures of the brain are not fully formed until our mid-twenties? One of these structures is the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for managing impulses. Because this structure is not fully formed in teens, they are more likely than other age groups to partake in risky behaviors.

Beyond brain development, hormones also play an important role in teens’ decision-making. According to NIDA, hormones are the chemicals our bodies produce when we reach puberty (ages 8-14) that help us mature into adults. Unfortunately, hormonal changes don’t just change us physically, but also affect us emotionally. For instance, because teens have an elevated level of cortisol, the “stress hormone”, they can often be moody and stressed. Furthermore, have you ever wondered why teens like to stay up late and sleep in? It’s because melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy, does not begin to increase in the teen body until at least 10:30pm. After this time, teens’ melatonin does not decrease again until later the next day. This melatonin regulation means that teens may feel tired often or not get enough sleep, which can increase stress and decrease the ability to make good decisions. Overall, with all of these changes and developments occurring at once, it is no wonder that teens are more likely to turn to substances to deal with life’s stresses.

Mental Health Problems Can Often go Undiagnosed in Young People

In light of such instability, it is also not surprising that many teens go undiagnosed for mental health disorders. After all, isn’t it natural for teens to be emotional and have trouble sleeping? Well yes, up to a point. The fact remains that teens can, and do, develop behaviors that go beyond normal adolescent moodiness. In fact, according to Clubhouse International, “50% of those who will ever be diagnosed with a mental disorder show signs of the disease by age 14…” (iccd.org). Of these cases, 35-50% go untreated in high income countries alone (iccd.org). Without proper diagnosis and treatment, teens are left to cope with mental health disorders on their own.

But what does this mental health dilemma mean for Cortland County? How many of our teens are struggling with mental health? According to the 2019 YDS Survey, 35.5% of Cortland County’s adolescents from grades 7 to 12 report feeling depressed or sad on most days during the past year.

Helping Teens Develop Healthy Coping Methods

Essentially, our teen years tend to create the ideal circumstances for drug use. Developing brains, new hormones, and potentially undiagnosed mental health disorders can all make one’s teen years feel tumultuous and overwhelming. Unfortunately, this use increases their risks of addiction, overdose, and possibly even death. For these reasons, it is important that we help our teens develop healthy coping methods when facing stress and pressure so that they might avoid substance abuse.

Source of Local Data:
The 2019 Youth Development Survey was administered to 2,002 students in grades 7-12 in Cortland County.

To learn more about how to prevent Rx drug abuse and addiction, visit cortlandareactc.org/Rx.