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What to Do If You Have a Problem with Drugs: For Teens and Young Adults

Revised June 2014

How do I know if I have a drug abuse problem?

Addiction can happen at any age, but it usually starts when a person is young. (See NIDA’s video, “Anyone Can Become Addicted to Drugs” below) If you continue to use drugs despite harmful consequences, you could be addicted. It is important to talk to a medical professional about it—your health and future might depend on it.

Have friends or family told you that you are behaving differently for no apparent reason––such as acting withdrawn, frequently tired or depressed, or hostile? You should listen and ask yourself if they are right—and be honest with yourself. These changes could be a sign you are developing a drug-related problem. Parents sometimes overlook such signs, believing them to be a normal part of puberty. Only you know for sure if you are developing a problem because of your drug use. Here are some other signs: 

  • Hanging out with different friends
  • Not taking care with your appearance
  • Receiving worse grades
  • Missing classes or skipping school
  • Losing interest in your favorite activities
  • Getting in trouble in school or with the law
  • Having different eating or sleeping habits
  • Having more problems with family members and friends

Thanks to science, we know more than ever before about how drugs work in the brain. We also know that addiction can be successfully treated to help young people stop abusing drugs and lead productive lives. Asking for help when you first suspect you have a problem is important; don’t wait to become addicted before you seek help.  If you are addicted, treatment is the next step.

Anyone Can Become Addicted to Drugs

Why can’t I stop using drugs on my own?

Repeated drug use changes the brain. Brain-imaging studies of people with drug addictions show changes in areas of the brain that are needed  for learning and memory, good decision making, and controlling oneself. Quitting is difficult, even for those who feel ready to recover. NIDA has an excellent video (below) that explains why drugs are so hard to quit (hint: it’s all about the brain)

If you aren’t sure you are addicted, it would be helpful to look at this brief video. It explains why the inability to stop using drugs does not mean you’re a bad person, just that you have an illness that needs to be treated.

Why Are Drugs So Hard to Quit

If I want to ask for help, where do I start?

Asking for help is the first important step. If you have a good relationship with your parents, you should start there. Ask them to read "What to Do If Your Teen or Young Adult Has a Problem with Drugs", which is similar to this page but written for parents. If you do not have a good relationship with your parents (or if they are having some problems of their own and might need help), find an adult you trust and ask them for help.

The next step is to go to your doctor. You might want to call your doctor in advance (or ask your parents to call) to see if he or she is comfortable discussing drug use. Believe it or not, sometimes doctors are just as uncomfortable discussing it as teens are! You will want to find a doctor who has experience with these issues. Your parents can help find you a great doctor by checking out the fact sheet we recommended above.

Together with your parents and doctor, you can decide if you should enter a treatment program.

It takes a lot of courage to seek help for a possible drug problem, because there is a lot of hard work ahead and it might get in the way of school and social activities. But treatment works, and you can recover; it just takes time and patience. Treatment is important, because you will not be ready to go out into the world on your own until you take care of this issue. Treatment will help you counteract addiction's powerful hold on your brain and behavior so you can regain control of your life.

I don’t like lying to my parents but they don’t understand me and my problems. If we talk about drugs, they will just yell at me. How can I avoid a fight?

First of all, remember that they were teens once, and they understand teen life more than you think. Second, when you first tell them about your problem, they might get angry out of fear and worry. They may act angry because they are very worried about you and your future. Try to stay calm and simply ask for help. Repeat over and over again that you need their help.

Parents do get angry when they find out their kids have been lying to them. You would do the same! Be honest with them. Let them know you want to change and need their help.

I am also afraid my parents will take away the car keys—what can I do about that?

The most responsible thing you can do is stop driving until you get help for your drug use. This may be inconvenient, but if you do drugs and drive you could end up killing not only yourself, but killing others  too. That could lead to a lifetime in prison. This is no different than drinking and driving. For more see our DrugFacts on Drugged Driving.

If you tell your parents that you are willing to give up your driving privileges, they will know you are serious about getting help.

Taking drugs helps me feel less depressed—what’s wrong with that?

The relief you feel is only temporary and can cause more problems down the road, as your brain and body start to crave more and more drugs just to feel normal.  It is very possible you need to find treatment for your depression as well as for your drug use. This is very common and is called “comorbidity” or “co-ocurrence” when you have more than one health problem at the same time. 

Be certain to tell your doctor about your depression (or other mental health problems) as well as your drug use. There are many non-addictive medicines that can help with depression or other mental health issues. Sometimes doctors do not talk to each other as well as they should, so you need to be your own best friend and advocate—and make sure all of your health care providers know about all of the health issues that concern you. You should be treated for all of them at the same time. For more information see our DrugFacts on Comorbidity.

If you ever feel so depressed that you think about hurting yourself, there is a hotline you can call: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This is called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and you can share all of your problems with them.

I’ll talk to a doctor, but I am afraid  they will tell my parents everything. Can I prevent that?

There are privacy laws that prevent your doctor from telling your parents everything. They can’t even tell law enforcement about your drug use, in case that worries you. But your parents might ask you to sign a permission form, so your doctor can discuss your issues with them. If you feel your parents are truly trying to help you, you should consider signing the form, because having accurate information will help them find the right care and treatment for you. For more information on how private medical information is protected by law, read the HHS information on Health Information Privacy (HIPAA).

However, there is one exception to this rule: Doctors can speak to parents and some officials if they have reason to believe that you are in danger of hurting yourself or others.

What will the doctor ask me?

The doctor will ask you a series of questions about your use of alcohol and drugs and other risky behaviors like driving under the influence or riding with drivers who have been using drugs and alcohol.  Your doctor can help you the best if you tell the truth. The doctor might also do a urine and/or blood test. This will provide important information so the doctor knows exactly what types of substances are in your body at the time of the examination.

If your goal is to truly get better and get your old life back, you should cooperate with your doctor. If you think problems at home are only making it harder to stay clean, share that information with your doctor. If they recommend counseling or treatment, you should give it at try. There is a whole network of trained adults out there who want to help you.

What is treatment like?

Treatment for drug problems is tailored to each patient's unique drug abuse patterns and other medical, psychological, and social problems.

Some treatment centers offer outpatient treatment programs, which would allow you to stay in school; at least part-time. Some teens and young adults do better in inpatient (residential) treatment. An addiction specialist can advise you about your best options.

NIDA has just created an online publication outlining the best treatment principles for your age group. You might want to have these materials handy, when you talk to treatment centers, to help you ask the right questions.

I don’t feel well when I stop using drugs. Do treatment centers force people to stop taking drugs immediately?

Treatment is always based on the person’s own needs. However, if you are still using a drug when you are admitted to a treatment program, one of the first things they need to do is help you safely remove drugs from your system (called “detox”). This is important, because drugs impair the mental abilities you need to make treatment work for you.

When people first stop using drugs, they can experience different physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms, including depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders, in addition to restlessness and sleeplessness. Remember that treatment centers are very experienced in helping you get through this process and keeping you safe and comfortable during it. Depending on your situation, you might also be given medications to reduce your withdrawal symptoms, making it easier to stop using.

Who will be helping me in treatment?

Different kinds of addiction specialists will likely be involved in your care as a team—including doctors, nurses, therapists, social workers, and others.

What kind of counseling should I get?

Behavioral treatment (also known as “talk therapy”) helps teens and young adults increase healthy life skills and learn how to be happy without drugs. It can keep you motivated to recover from your drug problem.

Treatment can be one-on-one with a doctor, but some of the most effective treatments for teens are ones that involve one or more of your parents or other family members.  You can read more about the different kinds of behavioral treatment options.

I have heard of support groups. What are those like?

These groups—called peer support groups—aren’t the same thing as treatment, but they can help you a lot  during and after treatment. Self-help groups and other support services offer you an added layer of social support, to help you stick with your healthy choices over the course of a lifetime.  If you are in treatment, your treatment provider will likely be able to tell you about good support groups.

The most well-known self-help groups are those affiliated with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Cocaine Anonymous (CA), and Teen-Anon, all of which are based on the 12-step approach. You can check the  Web sites of any of these groups for information about teen programs or meetings in your area. 

There are other kinds of groups too that can provide a lot of support, depending on where you live. To find support groups in your area, contact local hospitals, treatment centers, or faith-based organizations.

Other services available for teens include recovery high schools (in which teens attend school with other students who are also recovering) and peer recovery support services.

Are there medications that can help me stop using?

There are non-addictive medications that help treat addiction to alcohol, nicotine, and opioids (heroin and pain relievers). These are usually prescribed for adults, but sometimes doctors may prescribe them for younger patients. When this medication is available, it can be combined with behavioral therapy for added benefit.

Medications are also sometimes prescribed to help with drug withdrawal and to treat possible mental health conditions (like depression) that might be contributing to your drug problem.

Your treatment provider will let you know what medications are available for your particular situation. You should be aware that some treatment centers don’t believe a drug addiction should be treated with other drugs, so they may not want to prescribe medications—this is something you should ask about initially. But scientific research shows that medication does help in many, many cases.

Read more about what treatments are available to treat your addiction.

I tried rehab once and it didn’t work—why should I try it again?  

If you have already been in rehab, it means you have already learned many of the skills needed to recover from addiction, and you should try it again. Relapsing (going back to using drugs after getting off them temporarily) does not mean the first treatment failed. People with all kinds of diseases relapse; people with other chronic diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, and asthma relapse about as much as people who have addictions.

Treatment of all chronic diseases, including addiction, involves making tough changes in how you live and act, so setbacks are to be expected along the way. A return to drug use means treatment needs to be started again or that you might need a different treatment this time.

Where can I find information on specific drugs?

You can review the NIDA for Teens site, with information on a variety of drugs and drug abuse issues.

The main NIDA site also has information on specific drugs, including their effects on the body, brain, and behavior.

NIDA also has an Easy-to-Read Web site with information about many drugs.

You can also check out NIDA’s PEERx interactive videos, that focus on prescription drug abuse, or the Schoalstic e-poster that discusses health effects of drugs.

Where can I find more information on treatment and recovery?

More information on what to expect in treatment and recovery in our publication on the science behind addiction: Drugs, Brains, and Behavior - The Science of Addiction, written by NIDA scientists based on many years of research.

There is more information on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s resource page on Treatment, Prevention and Recovery.

This page was last updated June 2014

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