7 Things You Don’t Realize About Teenage Drug Abuse…Until You’re an Adult

teenage boy smoking joint
There are many things we'd like to tell our teenage selves about drug abuse.

It’s difficult to convince adolescents of the harmful and potentially deadly effects of drug abuse. After all, teens have an exaggerated sense of invulnerability: “Nothing bad will ever happen to me, regardless of what anyone says, thinks they know, or have experienced.”

But what happens when we aren’t teenagers anymore? What happens when we realize we aren’t so invincible, after all?

When the blissful ignorance of youth fades away, we suddenly start to notice the lasting consequences of our carefree teenage lives. Unfortunately, by the time we’ve figured that out, there has already been damage  done.
Teenage substance abuse can change the brain in devastating ways. Some drugs have toxic effects that can kill neurons, alter neurochemistry, and rewire certain neural connections. As adults, continued abuse may lead to memory loss, learning difficulties, impaired concentration, and even interfere with simple, everyday tasks. Mentally speaking, we become old before our time.

While it is important to recognize that drugs can lead to these deteriorating consequences, it is equally important to note that stopping drug use—and remaining clean—can allow the brain to heal itself. Some things might never be fully recovered. But replacing an unhealthy lifestyle with a healthy one can enhance both your brain and behavior.

Here are 7 things that we, as adults, wish we knew about using drugs as teens.

#1. Legal Consequences

DUI’s and other drug or alcohol-related legal charges negatively affect our ability to get accepted to universities, receive financial aid or gain reputable employment in adulthood. Our dreams of fun-filled college life and high-paying careers are crushed before we even graduate high school.

#2. Stunted Development

Studies show early onset drug use stunts the psychological development of an individual, resulting in prolonged adolescence. Basically, we don’t grow up, and though that may sound like a good thing, it’s not. Arrested development negatively affects our relationships, careers, coping abilities, and social skills.

#3. Unplanned Pregnancies

Throwing caution to the wind and engaging in risky behaviors is common in teenage years. One of many is unprotected sex, which can result in unanticipated events such as parenthood. The CDC reports that teen pregnancy accounts for more than $9 billion per year in costs to taxpayers for increased health care and foster care. Not to mention, teen mothers are more likely to drop out of school, have health problems, and face unemployment as adults.

#4. Emotional Immaturity

Teens who are unable to handle their emotions often turn to alcohol and drugs to mask their pain and escape reality. Unfortunately, temporary numbness comes with a price. Our inability to appropriately confront and resolve conflict, effectively communicate, or set and respect personal boundaries cripples our capacity for growth. As a result, we find ourselves emotionally handicapped as adults.

#5. Chemical Imbalances

We may not have cared much as teenagers, but it’s been a well-known fact that drugs affect delicate chemical balances in our brains. Because the human brain doesn’t reach full maturity until the mid-twenties, exposure to drugs and alcohol in adolescence can often lead to anxiety, depression and other mood disorders in adulthood.

#6. Sexual Impotency and Infertility

As much as alcohol and drugs may have helped us get lucky in our teens, it can have a negative effect on our ability to enjoy a healthy, vibrant sex life as adults. In addition to causing damage to the organs and systems necessary for men to get and keep an erection, it can also decrease an otherwise healthy sperm count and disrupt ovulation and menstrual cycles.

#7. Diminished Mental Capacity

Drug use and mental health problems often go hand-in-hand. Sometimes, mental health issues like anxiety, depression, or trauma lead to drug use; other times, the reverse is true: using drugs worsens mental health.

Prolonged drug use side-steps the need to address underlying mental health issues; and when these are not addressed early and thoroughly, mental health disorders can develop in adulthood. Stopping drug use and addressing mental health issues through therapy or other means (e.g., exercise, diet, social support) can improve your well-being and overall functioning in life.