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Teen Brains Vulnerable to Addiction

Maybe you’ve heard of them? Pharm parties—P H A R M. Not pigs, but pills.

Kids scrounge up pills they find around the house, in medicine cabinets, and then they all dump ‘em into a large bowl.

DELOS REYES: …and then everybody at the party takes a handful of whatever, and then usually washes it down with alcohol. And this is supposed to be sort of fun and the new way to party.

That’s Dr. Christina Delos Reyes, an addiction psychiatrist and chief clinical officer of the Alcohol Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board of Cuyahoga County.

Rebellious, impulsive behavior is often a hallmark of a teenager. And Delos Reyes says activity that’s risky and thrilling, like a “pharm party," can have powerful appeal.

DELOS REYES: Trying to be on the edge, as close to the edge as you can get without falling off…probably that impulse is strongest when you’re in your teen years.

This is precisely what puts teens at risk of developing a serious drug or alcohol addiction.

Their brains are vulnerable.

DELOS REYES: So there’s something about brain development that’s happening when someone is a young adult and a teenager that is very critical to the formation of this illness.

Teen brains are still wiring up. Nerves are gaining speed and fluidity. Areas of the brain related to judgment and decision-making aren’t fully formed.

DELOS REYES: Our brains aren’t 100 percent fully developed and ready to rock until about the age of 25.

So it’s harder to weigh the consequences of things like pharm parties.

DELOS REYES: With a lack of judgment and less impulse control, it sort of seems like a good idea at the time.

Not all kids who try drugs or alcohol are gonna become addicted. Addiction is a disease and, for most people, it develops over time. Biology plays an important role but so does psychology and the environment we’re in.

Mike Matoney is the CEO of a local addiction treatment center called New Directions. It focuses on teens.

MATONEY: We first started 31 years ago to fill in a real gap that existed in Cuyahoga County and the greater Cleveland area.

The teen years are a critical time to intervene, he says. Early help can help avoid years of wreckage.

MATONEY: You talk to any adult person who is in their 40s or 50s—they’re going to tell you they started using drugs and alcohol in their teens.

New Directions offers outpatient therapy as well as a residential program. I spoke to a young woman there. This is her second time in rehab. She asked that we not use her name.

TEEN: I remember the first time I drank and my friend was telling me about it and I’m like “oh my god that seems cool,” and then we just drank.

Drinking progressed to weed, weed to pills, pills to heroin.

She got help, but then relapsed. She struggles to understand why.

TEEN: It started to happen and then I was like, “Wow I can’t believe this is happening,” but it was like, I don’t know, my thinking just told me to think like it was whatever, until I really started noticing a problem. I wanted to quit but then I just didn’t know how, I guess.

Being back at home, around friends, it was easy to slip back into old habits.

TEEN: Then you just forget about the bad stuff and think like I just want to have fun again. And forget it could get bad.

University Hospitals psychiatrist Delos Reyes says when young people start using drugs, it can set up a vicious cycle.

DELOS REYES: We have less judgment and more impulsivity which then sets us up to use drugs and alcohol, which then damages our brain, to then control future intake…vicious cycle.

TEEN: But like when you’re sober, like right now, you just think, about how crazy it is, I guess. It seems normal at the time when you’re using but when you’re sober it’s hard.

anne.glausser@ideastream.org | 216-916-6129