What families can do to prevent substance use in young people Young people are at risk of greater physical, emotional and social complications of excessive alcohol and substance use

Chido Madzvamutse Mental Wellness

As discussed in previous articles, mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a meaningful contribution to their community.

The abuse of alcohol and other substances is a factor that can lead to deterioration in mental health and well-being, particularly in young people.

The habit of substance use often starts in adolescence and can lead to mental health challenges that can persist into adulthood.

Adolescence and substance use

Adolescence is a challenging developmental phase where young people are transitioning into young adulthood. During this time, young people are trying to understand themselves and the world around them.

Adolescents make many choices during this time and these can affect their lives immediately and in the long term.

They can be vulnerable to risky behaviour that can have a life-long impact on their physical and mental health.

Substance use is one of those risky behaviours and this can start as experimentation in adolescence but can progress into regular use and compulsive use.

Young people are at risk of greater physical, emotional and social complications of excessive alcohol and substance use. Early initiation into alcohol and substance use can result in long term physical health challenges.

Teenagers are at a higher risk of developing dependence or addiction more rapidly with earlier onset of substance use.

Early onset of alcohol and substance use is also linked to riskier patterns of drinking and substance use which subsequently increase the occurrence of risky sexual behaviour.

Early onset of alcohol and substance use can also lead to mood problems, anxiety challenges and can increase risk of suicide.

Families, adolescents and substance use

There are many factors that put adolescents at risk of early onset of alcohol and substance misuse. These include individual, family and community factors.

  • Individually, adolescents’ brains are still developing and can be vulnerable to the toxic and addictive effects of alcohol and substances. The teenagers are also still developing their ability to control their impulses. This can lead to decreased capacity to resist using alcohol and substances if they are made available to them.
  • Communities where alcohol and substances are easily available to young people increase the risk of alcohol and substance use problems in young people in that community. Communities where substance use is normalised and accepted as part of the culture also increase the risk of substance use challenges developing in young people.
  • Families can be both a protective factor against development of substance use in young people but can also be part of the problem. Families where there are strong, loving relationships, warm and open communication and appropriate supervision of young people can protect young ones from developing substance use. Conversely, families where there are weak connections, poor communication and little supervision can result in increased influence of peers on young people and risk of substance use.

What can families do to protect young people from developing substance use problems?

  1. Building relationship: adolescence is a challenging development phase for young people and even if they seem as if they do not accept it, they need support and guidance from their parents, guardians and other important adults in their lives.

However, discipline and correction is easier accepted from someone you know loves and cares about you. It is therefore critical for parents and guardians to build loving, open and authentic relationships to then be a stronger voice in the lives of their young people.

  1. Be alert, vigilant and informed: Many parents are the last to know about their adolescents substance use. This is often because parents and guardians are ill informed about substance use and other risky behaviours.

It is important to stay informed as the world changes and the risks for young people also evolve. Parents are also often distracted by work and other pursuits and may miss red flags early on.

Common red flags for possible substance use in a young person include changes in mood and behaviour, social withdrawal, agitation or irritability, changes in friends, changes in eating and sleeping habits and changes in school performance.

  1. Model healthy, substance-free stress management: Young people will be greatly influenced by the behaviour of those around them.

If excessive alcohol and substance use is normalised in the home and if drinking or drug abuse is used as a coping mechanism for stress, this will become an acceptable solution for them. It is critical for parents and guardians to reflect on the state of their own mental health and learn to model healthier behaviour for the young people looking up to them.

If you think that a young person you know may be experiencing a mental health or substance use problem, please contact your nearest health care provider and get help.

l Association of Healthcare Funders of Zimbabwe (AHFoZ) article written by Dr Chido Rwafa Madzvamutse.

Feedback: Chido Rwafa Madzvamutse Whatsapp+263714987729) (www.ahfoz.org); [email protected]

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