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High school students who use alcohol, cannabis or nicotine are at higher risk for mental health disorders. What parents should know

A recent study conducted by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and the University of Minnesota reveals that high school students who reported using alcohol, cannabis, or nicotine showed a higher likelihood of experiencing symptoms related to mental health disorders, even at low usage levels. The study analyzed data from a 2022–2023 survey of over 15,000 Massachusetts high school students.

Key findings of the study indicate that the use of these substances is linked to psychiatric symptoms, including suicidal thoughts, symptoms of depression or anxiety, psychotic experiences, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms. The researchers also observed that daily or near-daily substance use was consistently associated with moderate increases in psychiatric symptoms. Students who used substances on a daily or near-daily basis were about five times more likely to report thoughts of suicide compared to those who did not use substances.

Even among students with lower levels of substance use, such as those who had ever used substances or used them monthly or weekly, an increase in psychiatric symptoms was detected. This noteworthy finding suggests that even minimal substance use can be associated with psychiatric symptoms in adolescents.

Dr. Randi M. Schuster, senior author of the study and an associate professor of psychology at MGH, emphasized that psychiatric symptoms tend to be more prevalent among young people who use substances. The study’s ability to replicate these findings using data from a national survey conducted in 2021 further reinforces the robustness of the results.

While experts acknowledge the study’s contribution to understanding the connection between substance use and mental health disorders, some caution that it doesn’t consider the combined effects of multiple substances commonly used by adolescents. Dr. Christopher J. Hammond, an associate professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, highlights the absence of control for the effects of different substances on each other.

Dr. Maria H. Rahmandar, a co-author of the American Academy of Pediatrics clinical report on suicide and suicide risk in adolescents, notes that the study reinforces the association between substance use and the risk of suicidality and mental health disorders. Rahmandar emphasizes the bidirectional nature of the relationship, where substance use can increase the risk of mental health issues, and vice versa.

The study underscores the importance of addressing substance use in youth with mental health concerns. Parents are encouraged to initiate conversations about substance abuse early on, beginning as early as age 9, and approach the topic gradually. Open communication, staying calm, and taking thoughts of suicide seriously are crucial aspects of supporting adolescents navigating concerns related to alcohol, cannabis, or nicotine use and mental health.

In summary, the study sheds light on the intricate relationship between substance use and mental health symptoms in high school students, emphasizing the need for proactive conversations and support from parents and caregivers.

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