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“Many teens describe abusing drugs as a way of gaining popularity or even blending in during high school,” writes VOX ATL reporter Sophie James. “Although substance abuse affects everyone, the effect on teenagers is especially important.”

Photo: Asthon/FLICKR, Illustration: Sophie James

Dope to Cope: Why Teens Substitute Drugs for Dopamine

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“It is more socially acceptable to use drugs as distractions because some people and find it easier than telling someone about (their stress),” says Sally Abu, a 15-year-old, from Berkmar High School. Sally wasn’t the only teen who spoke up about drugs as a quick way to numb their problems. Another local student, 17-year- old Sydney Dawson, said teens use drugs “to follow the crowd and try to take o the stress from school or other things.”

But the reality is when the buzz wears off, most are left wanting more, which is damaging to mental and physical health and can leave you trapped in a dangerous cycle of substance abuse. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, abuse is “problematic, recurrent use of drugs or alcohol that causes significant distress or impairment in a person’s life.”

Abu adds, “drugs are kind of common in high schools. I think the underclassmen use it because they’re young and are introduced to a new environment with older people and they feel like using drugs is their way of fitting in. The upperclassmen most likely use it because of the stress of preparing for college.”

Kendyl Hayes, 17, a student at Greater Atlanta Christian School, wrote that teens “mostly use drugs like weed as a stress reliever and drugs like Adderall to stay focused and get more work accomplished.” Using drugs to deal with stress or to help you focus in school is often called self-medicating.

Drug use when you are overwhelmed or anxious seems like a good solution, but, according to author of “Beat Depression and Anxiety By Changing Your Brain,” Debbie Hampton, what a lot of people don’t realize is it is just as easy to get dopamine — a chemical in the brain that makes us feel good —by talking to others and building relationships, without damaging your health. Talking to friends or therapists is a healthy way to work through problems and create positive pathways in your prefrontal cortex. Close personal relationships can be very helpful if you are feeling alone or need someone to talk to. Doing these things while your brain is still developing helps to form healthy habits (see tips for coping with stress).

Many teens describe abusing drugs as a way of gaining popularity or even blending in during high school. Although substance abuse affects everyone, the effect on teenagers is especially important.

According to Get Smart About Drugs, a website run by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that focuses on decision making — does not stop growing and developing until a person’s mid-20s, and using drugs while your brain is still developing causes it to think of drugs as a priority. It takes over your mind as you get addicted. Many drugs release dopamine which people want to keep coming back for more.

The Child Mind Institute says this is especially dangerous for teens as their brains are still growing, so it can lead to addiction much quicker than in adults. Addiction like this can cause problems later in life because when breaking the addiction, you go through withdrawals, your brain has already been altered, and your health damaged.

Despite that, teens still turn to drugs to cope. “Everything comes back to you when you’re sober and [drug use] negatively affects your health,” says Abu, who serves as a Youth Advisory Board member with GUIDE, a nonprofit that focuses on substance use prevention.

Although using drugs to cope may seem like an easy solution to hard problems, better alternatives to deal with your issues are available. Before reaching for drugs, consider talking to others or finding a positive outlet. If you feel overwhelmed or helpless, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line at 741741, and know you’re never alone.


You are invited to join VOX ATL’s teens at our annual VOX-A-PALOOZA celebration where we will highlight all of the work that has been created this semester as well as give you an opportunity to meet the teens themselves. You will also be one of the first to receive the newest print editon of VOX Investigates: Mental Health! RSVP HERE.

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