Parents who are my age were in high school in the early 1980s. We’re the “just say no” generation, and many of us did say no to marijuana, alcohol and cigarettes. Those of us who chose to use these drugs were trying to feel something more, something better, than the way we felt day to day. We weren’t generally identified as living with depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD or an anxiety disorder. We may, in fact, have had them, but generally no one knew, and no one treated us for them. As a result, most of us don’t know much about these disorders.
In our role as parents, my generation tries hard. We educate our kids about the dangers of drinking and smoking, and warn them about the frightening, addictive, “hard” drugs that we generally didn’t have access to when we were teens. Beyond basic prevention, though, the challenge is to consider why our adolescents are using drugs and alcohol, and whether the feelings they’re coping with constitute a mental health problem.
A person who has developed a substance abuse problem in conjunction with a mental disorder is said to have a “dual diagnosis.” Families, school officials, and others often struggle to grasp the severity of either condition separately, much less together.
How do we tell the difference between common teenage mood swings and the symptoms of a mental disorder? How can we know whether our child is depending on drugs to cope with an undiagnosed mental illness? How do we determine whether a teen is “just experimenting” with drugs, using frequently, or living with an addiction? Worst of all, how do we do this when they’re at an age where so many of them stop talking to us?
Sometimes, a professional can make all the difference. When parents ask, “Why are you using drugs?” what a teenager hears is a rhetorical question and an accusation. They’re likely to respond defensively, deny they use, or just walk away. When I ask the same question, I often hear, “Because I’m tired of feeling sad [or anxious, or angry] all the time.” This response opens the door to further discussion, assessment and treatment.
What can parents do? First, learn the basic signs of the most common mental health conditions as well as the signs of drug use. There are many reliable resources. The Web site of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, www.nami.org, has great information in everyday language. Information about substance abuse is available at www.theantidrug.com. Your public library, public school or doctor’s office also has materials for concerned parents.
Next, watch for changes. Entering puberty, moving from middle school to high school, making new friends and losing old ones, and moving into late adolescence are all very stressful, but normal, transitions for teens. During these times, their vulnerability spikes and their resistance wanes. Isolating themselves, going through dramatic mood swings, and showing rebellious behavior are all normal parts of adolescence, and they may persist without indicating an underlying mental disorder.
Pay attention to the changes in your teen’s behavior and to how long those changes last. It’s important not to overreact. Don’t become invasive or accusatory. When you have a concern, check in with them. Describe what you see, not what you fear. If your communication gets stuck, ask another trusted adult to get involved – perhaps a teacher, relative or family friend. Bring your teen for a medical checkup or a session with a professional counselor.
If you suspect your child is using drugs to cope with a mental disorder, don’t freak out and don’t go it alone. There’s a good chance your teen is just as scared as you are. Make an appointment with a qualified professional who is able to measure both mental health and substance abuse. When selecting a professional, ask specifically if they have experience in working with “dual diagnosis.” Finally, if treatment is recommended, join your teen in that treatment. They’ll need you more than ever.
Jim LaPierre is the director of outpatient services at Manna Ministries in Bangor.
Please join our weekly conversation about Maine’s substance abuse problem. We welcome comments or questions from all perspectives. Letters may be mailed to Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04401. Send e-mail contributions to email@example.com. Column editor Meg Haskell may be reached at (207) 990-8291 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Recovery Works series that ran in this space through the month of September was widely read and well received. The Bangor Daily News thanks all those who agreed to share their personal recovery stories, including their names and photographs. As more people come forward to share their experiences publicly, stigma surrounding the disease of drug addiction will diminish and recognition of its terrible toll on our families and communities will grow. As we encourage those who struggle under the burden of addiction to seek help, we call on our politicians and policymakers to support initiatives that promote prevention, treatment and recovery.
– Meg Haskell