Teen Anxiety and Substance Use

Jul 21, 2023 | Uncategorized

Anxiety and depression are rising among America’s youth and—whether teenagers personally suffer from these conditions or not—a troubling 70 percent see them as a major problem among their peers. An additional 26 percent view anxiety and depression as a minor problem while only four percent believed them to be no problem at all, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey of US teens between the ages of 13 and 17.

In December, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on the youth mental health crisis: “Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real and widespread. Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide — and rates have increased over the past decade,” Dr. Murthy said. 

Anxious teens (not unlike adults who are anxious) may get into the habit of using drugs and alcohol as a way of coping with their discomfort. Over 80 percent of teens in the Pew survey found that drinking alcohol and drug addiction were major or minor problems in their communities. 


Anxiety often leads to depression, too,” wrote Caroline Miller for the website of the Child Mind Institute. “A life full of avoidance or worry undermines well-being. As anxious kids start doing less and less, their depression grows.” And the urge to self-medicate with psychoactive substances increases. 

Teens face many pressures that may trigger anxiety and substance use. According to the Pew research, “academics tops the list: 61 percent of teens say they feel a lot of pressure to get good grades. By comparison, about three in ten say they feel a lot of pressure to look good (29 percent) and to fit in socially (28 percent), while roughly one in five feel similarly pressured to be involved in extracurricular activities and to be good at sports (21 percent each).” 

Symptoms of anxiety in teenagers vary widely, from withdrawal and avoidance to irritability and lashing out. According to the Child Mind Institute, these are some of the behaviors that might be a sign that a teenager is anxious.

  • Recurring fears and worries about routine parts of everyday life
  • Irritability
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Extreme self-consciousness or sensitivity to criticism
  • Withdrawal from social activity
  • Avoidance of difficult or new situations
  • Chronic complaints about stomachaches or headaches
  • Drop in grades or school refusal
  • Repeated reassurance-seeking
  • Sleep problems
  • Substance use

Due to the ongoing legalization and normalization of cannabis use—especially as “medicine”— many teenagers now consider marijuana a “healthier” choice than alcohol. The use of neither is a healthy way to manage anxiety, though, explains Jerry Bubrick, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute who specializes in anxiety and OCD. He urges kids not to use recreational drugs as medicine. “If you have a joint in your pocket all the time and you’re smoking during the day to get through your day at school, that’s no different from having a bottle of vodka in your desk drawer at work.” You’re still relying on a substance to get through the day and the more you use it, the more you will become dependent on it.

Recovery at Avanti Behavioral Health 

There is a new treatment option for teenagers at risk in the Denver area. Avanti Behavioral Health recently launched an intensive outpatient program (IOP) for clients between the ages of 13 and 18 in Greenwood Village, Colorado.  

Our mission is to provide comprehensive, holistic, family-centered, and trauma-informed care for your teen. A thorough clinical assessment is a crucial step in the treatment process at Avanti. It is a free evaluation that aims to identify any misdiagnosed or undiagnosed conditions that may be affecting the well-being of your child. 

Through evidence-based assessment tools and clinical interviews, our experienced clinicians gather valuable information about an adolescent’s emotional, behavioral, and psychological functioning. This process helps us uncover underlying mental health conditions—such as anxiety and depression— substance use concerns, or other co-occurring disorders that may be contributing to their challenges.

The Avanti team believes that recovery from a substance use disorder is a process that should involve the entire immediate family. We have developed an effective and highly involved method of family counseling. For more information about our IOP and family programming call us at (720) 753-4030. 


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