Contributor: Yvette McBride Thomas
There is a debate in this country about how substance abuse begins. In the past, it was believed to be a moral issue. At that time, alcoholics and addicts were seen as morally deficient. This is not the view of clinicians today. Today physicians, psychologists, and counselors identify chemical dependency as a disease. The question still remains, however: why can some people use alcohol or drugs safely while others become chemically dependent? The debate points to heredity or environment, or a combination of these. Many experts theorize that chemical dependency is hereditary. If we examine the background of someone who is alcohol- or drug-dependent, we often see a family history of the illness. One thing is certain: in order to become chemically dependent, an individual must first begin using alcohol or drugs. As mentioned previously, the United States, though comprising only 5-6% of the world’s population, consumes three-quarters of all illegal drugs produced in the world! Additionally, Americans are the leading abusers of alcohol and prescription drugs in the world. Why is this?
One environmental theory is based on the fact that American society today over-emphasizes the importance of “feeling good.” In our society, if a person doesn’t feel well, we
reach for substances as a solution. As a result, our society has developed a “pill for every ill” attitude. These “ills,” regardless of type or severity, are often being treated with drugs or alcohol. Our “pill-for-every-ill” attitude influences many individuals in our society to believe that a chemical cure is the only solution for any societal problem. (We’re not referring here to the appropriate use of medication, as prescribed by a physician or other health care professional, for physical, mental, or emotional disorders, but rather to the abuse of alcohol and drugs.)
As adults, we demonstrate this “pill for every ill’ attitude to our children. We may take pills to get started in the morning, to get to sleep at night, to deal with mild pain, or to deal with situational sadness. This vicious cycle of chemical cures is paraded in front of our children on a daily basis. This behavior does not provide a proper example for our children. Today, the morals we teach our children have changed. Unfortunately, the breakdown in discipline of children and the many changes in family structure (such as families where both parents work, single-parenting situations, etc.) have eroded the traditional family structure. It is often replaced with a loose structure, in which children may doubt their parents’ authority and values.
Community is another area where society has weakened. Changes in the community have contributed to a breakdown, a lack of respect, in the general moral standards of the past. We live in a society where “anything goes.” Often, there are no repercussions when moral standards or laws are broken. Looking at our society, we see gang wars, prostitution, drug trafficking and theft. Many people do not know who their neighbors are and have little concern for them. Children are being taught (by the example of the adults in their lives) to “look the other way,” and to avoid confronting important issues.
Drugs are in our children’s lives at an early age. Often children face major decisions before they are twelve years old as to whether or not to smoke, drink or use drugs. Because of this, information about alcohol, drugs and appropriate decision making must be presented early by knowledgeable individuals in the school system. This education of our youth should not stop with the school system but should be reinforced in the home, in athletics, in the workplace and in the community.
Childhood and adolescence is a time of tremendous change in a child’s life. Teens, in particular, undergo rapid changes in emotions, coinciding with the numerous physiological changes taking place. This is also the age at which a child begins to create his/her own value system. It is very important for parents to understand that substance use by children and teens is a very critical issue. Substance abuse affects a young person’s emotional, physical, and moral development. It contributes to emotional immaturity, improper physical development, poor moral standards, an inability to learn and faulty decision making. But we must start setting the right example even before the teen years. For pre-school age children and toddlers, parents should reinforce the concept that medicine is taken only for illnesses or by direction of a physician. Drug education in primary schools is extremely important. Teachers, administrators and parents should all provide educational information to the children and reinforce the consequences associated with substance use.
Substance abuse is on the rise by our adolescents. During the teenage years, experimentation with alcohol and/or drugs is common; this is when most drug problems begin. Most people are unaware that alcohol is classified as a mood-altering drug. Use of alcohol by teenagers often leads to use of other drugs. Experimentation with substances may occur in the home, at school, in social situations or at a stressful time in youngsters’ lives. Alcohol and drugs are used on a regular basis by a large percentage of our teenagers, many of whom later become alcoholics or drug addicts. Sadly, we know that some will even die as a result of their substance use.
Today, an alarming number of adolescents are smoking cigarettes. Once they begin using tobacco, marijuana is the logical next step. Over half of adolescents admitted to drug treatment programs are seeking treatment for marijuana addiction. Adolescents who smoke marijuana are 85 times more likely to eventually turn to cocaine and other “hard” drugs, compared to those who have not smoked marijuana. Thus, tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana are known as “gateway” drugs. Use of these “gateway” substances may lead to “harder” drugs, especially for adolescents who are already chemically dependent upon alcohol or marijuana.
Once our children become adults, the cycle doesn’t end. As adults, they become part of our nation’s workforce. In our corporations today, we see many problems caused by substance abuse. The list is staggering: increased absenteeism and illness, lower productivity, theft, an increased number of accidents and fatalities, greater use of medical benefits, violence, altercations, and lower employee morale are all related to drug and alcohol abuse in the workplace.
To combat experimentation and substance abuse, all aspects of society must join together and provide educational information to our children on the dangers of substance use. We must be good role models. We must provide community support, and encourage effective law-enforcement programs. We must arm our youth with the knowledge they need to make important decisions about alcohol and drug use.
Reasons for Using Substances