We are seeing higher numbers of young adults and children suffering from mental health issues like depression and anxiety, as well as problems with substance abuse and addiction. Why are young people susceptible to developing these issues, and what can we do about it?
Many of us who identify as having mental health challenges or struggle with an addictive personality feel as though our problematic patterns began in childhood. We find that we can trace our issues back to incidents that took place when we were very young. Formative experiences, including traumatic events that contributed to our depression, anxiety, and other illnesses, and that drove us to seek solace in an addictive substance or behavior. Many of us inherited genetic traits for mental illness and addiction from our family members, and many of us were surrounded by these issues in our families and communities. As young people, though, we don’t yet have the experience or familiarity with these issues to understand where they might have originated. We don’t have deeper understanding around the complexities of these particular struggles. We have yet to begin our recovery journey. Many of us don’t even know yet that what we’re dealing with is mental illness and addiction. We know we’re suffering, but we don’t know why. We often haven’t received a diagnosis or consulted a medical professional. Chances are we haven’t even brought it to anyone’s attention. Because we’re still so young, we’re coping with some very difficult symptoms without knowing what it is we’re experiencing. As a result, we can find ourselves feeling overwhelmed, confused and afraid. We might isolate ourselves and keep our painful issues a secret from loved ones. Our youth, our inexperience and our lack of familiarity with addiction, mental health and recovery make us especially susceptible to this kind of suffering.
Another factor in our difficulty with these issues is the immense pressure we feel from our friends and peers to be cool, popular and well-liked. The peer pressure we experience not only persuades us to experiment with drugs, alcohol and dangerous behaviors, it can also convince us not to ask for help when we need it. We’re so afraid of being looked down upon and considered uncool that we make the decision to keep our issues to ourselves. We don’t speak up for ourselves at school or in social settings. We want so desperately to be included, accepted and validated that many of us start down a path of experimentation and emotional suppression that can easily lead to addiction and mental illness. Part of the pressure we receive from our peers comes in the form of bullying. We’re teased, mocked, even assaulted, contributing to our feelings of sadness and fear. We become self-rejecting and self-doubting. We feel ashamed of ourselves and grow to hate ourselves. These painful feelings are very often contributing factors to our mental, emotional and behavioral health issues, and many of us will avoid how we feel and instead seek solace in what ultimately becomes our drug of choice.
The insecurities we feel as young people can become a major part of our struggle with mental illness and addiction. Many of us have struggled with feelings of self-hatred for as long as we can remember. We may have been mocked by our family members. We may have been teased by siblings. We might be so different from the other people around us that we see ourselves as strange and odd rather than as unique. We might be struggling with issues around self-identification. We might be questioning our sexual orientation or gender identity. We might be the only person of color in our class. We might have a different body type, hair type or skin complexion from the majority of the people we’re surrounded by. We may be ridiculed by others and then direct their criticisms inward, condemning ourselves as a result. Sometimes our insecurities are strictly internal and have nothing to do with how others have treated us. We simply struggle to accept ourselves for who we are, even when we’re met with love and support by friends and family. Whatever the source of our insecurities, they can be painful and difficult to deal with. When we’re still young, many of us haven’t developed the self-love and self-confidence to embrace who we are and accept ourselves unconditionally. We still see our flaws as evidence that we’re inadequate and inferior to other people. We struggle with issues of low self-worth, and these issues often stay with us well into adulthood. We develop patterns of escaping how we feel with an addictive substance or behavior, and our painful feelings often develop into mental health issues like depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
Before we’ve analyzed the origins of our insecurity and emotional pain, we have yet to understand that much of it comes from our experiences with trauma. When we’ve experienced anything painful or difficult, we can become destabilized, ungrounded and uncentered as a result. We feel guilt and shame for what we’ve been through, blaming ourselves and feeling as though we’ve brought our trauma onto ourselves. Our feelings of sadness, hopelessness and shame can cause us to become self-destructive. We self-harm in different ways, often through experimenting with drugs, alcohol and dangerous addictive behaviors. When we don’t love and value ourselves, our instincts for self-preservation become corrupted, and we self-destruct as a result. Our addictions are a more obvious manifestation of our self-destructiveness, but we are also internally self-harming in all kinds of ways. We don’t tell people how much we’re suffering. We keep our illnesses a secret and deny we’re in pain. We don’t ask for help. All of these emotional patterns can be signs that we’ve become self-destructive. As young people, we have yet to really understand these patterns. We haven’t formed ideas for ourselves around self-love and self-abandonment. We haven’t decided how we’re going to take care of ourselves or how we’re going to operate in our lives. We haven’t learned the critical importance of self-care.
When we’re young, we may not have an outlet to communicate our difficult thoughts and feelings. Many of us have yet to find the means of self-expression that will become our tools for healing. We haven’t yet developed the healthy coping skills or found the practices that we will use to cope with our challenges. We’re still grappling with our issues, many of which we have yet to identify or understand, and we are so early in the evolution of our challenges that we don’t yet know how to handle them. All of the tools we will learn later on in our recovery journey are things we have yet to discover when we’re still young. We can feel so lost and overwhelmed when we’re still struggling with no means of helping ourselves. We can feel utterly helpless and hopeless. We have yet to understand that it is this experience, this process of suffering with our painful illnesses, that will set us down the path of recovery and enable us to find the things that will best help us to heal as we move forward.
As young people, we’re still trying to figure out so many things for ourselves – who we are, where we fit in, what our place in the world is. We’re still having a hard time finding ourselves. The sheer confusion we feel, along with all the hormonal changes that come with adolescence, can make us increasingly vulnerable to depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. We might feel compelled at an early age to escape our feelings of confusion and overwhelm with an addictive substance or behavior. We often feel at a young age that we are in crisis. We’re contending with so many emotional and physical changes that we have a hard time understanding, that baffle and overwhelm us. We’re also dealing with difficult lifestyle factors and changes to our routines – switching schools, moving to a new neighborhood, dealing with our parents’ difficult financial situations, coping with our parents’ separation or divorce. All of these changes can make us feel as though we’re drowning in sadness and confusion. We feel a great deal of inner turmoil as a result. All of this can lead us to seek refuge in drugs, alcohol or any kind of addictive behavior.
A great deal of the turmoil we feel when we’re young is a result of our relationship with social media and technology. We are coming of age at a time when the internet and social media platforms have become a daily way of life for many of us. We feel pressure to keep up with our profiles, to constantly post photos of ourselves, to paint a picture of how cool and successful we are. We deny our true emotions in order to make ourselves look popular, happy and well-adjusted. We feel compelled to share intimate details about our personal lives, and to share information about ourselves on a regular basis. We engage in constant self-promotion, feeling as though we’re in competition with others for validation and affirmation. We want “likes” and “follows” so badly that we’ll alter our appearance. We struggle to look like the celebrities we idolize. We struggle with body image issues. We feel ugly, fat, inadequate and inferior because we’re attempting to emulate the impossible standards we see popularized in mainstream culture. We might starve ourselves, or binge and purge, developing long-term eating disorders. We might get surgical implants. We might exercise excessively, desperate to lose weight, to the point of burning ourselves out, exhausting ourselves, even landing in the hospital. All of these can contribute to our growing depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. We might find ourselves using an addictive substance or behavior to cope with just how badly we feel about ourselves. Our use of social media can grow into an addictive pattern in and of itself, with social media addiction being a growing problem for people of all ages.
Another thing to consider is that as young people, we’re still learning critical thinking skills, impulse control and good judgment. We have yet to develop and practice all the skills that will help us to become well-adjusted adults. This means we might be impulsive, compulsive and reckless. We might take chances with our health, our safety and our well-being. We might throw caution to the wind, endangering ourselves and others with our careless decision-making. When we’re young, we often have yet to experience the consequences of our actions. We have yet to know what the repercussions of our mistakes will be. This is part of the learning process we all go through as we mature. This is part of the evolution of our awareness that helps us to make better decisions as we get older. We learn over time to be more self-protective and self-nurturing. We learn to value ourselves and to prioritize our well-being. We learn to think things through carefully, to be diligent in our decision-making process, to exercise good judgment, and to control our impulses. We learn through experience that acting rashly and impulsively can hurt us and other people, and we learn the importance of making good decisions and taking better care of ourselves.
There are many possible solutions to the growing numbers of young people struggling with addiction and mental illness. One of these is to expand the education provided in schools and youth programs, to prepare them for the challenges that might lie ahead, and to equip them with the knowledge and guidance that can help them to offset these issues. When young people are left to learn about these issues on their own, they might be more likely to confront them in their peer groups, learning about drugs and alcohol from their friends for example. This leads to misinformation and a greater chance that they will experiment without knowing the true risks involved. We want to prepare young people from an early age to understand addiction and mental illness, to recognize some of the warning signs so that they can be on the alert for them, whether in their own lives or in the lives of their friends. We want to educate our young people on the disastrous consequences of experimenting with drugs, alcohol and addictive behaviors. Even when we don’t develop a full-blown addiction, we are at risk for other health problems and mental health issues related to this experimentation, issues that can be life-long and intensely problematic over time. Education is one of the best means of prevention when it comes to addiction and mental illness, especially in young people. We can try to reach them before their issues become deeply ingrained, before they’ve become lifestyles that are harder to transform, and we can reach the people who are already suffering and help them turn things around for themselves and seek out recovery. To this end, we can encourage more adult recovering addicts to share their personal experiences with young people, to pass on their knowledge and share their wisdom. This can be an invaluable experience for young people, to hear directly from those in recovery and to learn firsthand from their stories.
Another solution to the growing number of young people afflicted by mental illness and addiction is to implement sources of support, especially in schools and programs where they can best take advantage of them. This could include increasing the number of therapists and school counselors available to young people. It could mean referring young people to treatment facilities that address emotional and behavioral issues including addiction and mental illness. It could include establishing more support groups for young people to attend, where they can express how much they’re struggling and be met with compassion and understanding rather than rejection. The more young people can talk about their issues and learn to communicate what they’re going through, the less they will suppress their feelings and suffer in silence. The more we can encourage them to open up to people and find trustworthy sources of support, the more likely they are to find healing tools sooner and begin their journey of recovery earlier.
Wondering what step you should take next? Unsure of what services would be the best fit for you? Call Steps Recovery Centers today – 385-250-1701- to talk with one of our trained clinicians. With levels of care from outpatient to residential, we can meet you where you are and help boost your journey to recovery.