High-Achieving and Religious Students At-Risk Youth For Substance Abuse?

New research shows high-achieving kids are more likely to drink and use drugs during their teen years and develop addictions by adulthood.

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DO YOU ASSUME THAT since your kid gets good grades and goes to a good school that they’re not drinking or doing drugs? Think again. That’s the takeaway from two new studies suggesting that academically gifted youths are more likely to abuse substances, both as teens and adults. One surveyed 6,000 London students over nine years. Those with the highest test scores at age 11 were more likely to drink alcohol and smoke marijuana in adolescence – and were twice as likely to do so “persistently by age 20.”

Notably, a study taken by Arizona State University (ASU) study found that high school students who were more afraid their parents would punish them were less likely to drink or get high as adults. One professor, Luthar, said her guidance for parents is to start the conversation in middle school, and not to downplay the seriousness of underage or or excessive drinking. She says, “Tell them it only takes one arrest, and all the things they are working for so hard can be derailed.”

BETWEEN 23% AND 40% OF HIGH-ACHIEVING UPPER MIDDLE-CLASS BOYS ARE DIAGNOSED WITH DRUG OR ALCOHOL DEPENDENCE BY AGE 26 ACCORDING TO A STUDY OF NEW ENGLAND HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS.

The ASU study followed 330 high-achieving high school students from suburban New England schools. It found that their frequency of drunkenness and use of marijuana, stimulants, cocaine, and other drugs was substantially higher than the norm for their peers. By age 26, they were two to three times more likely to have been diagnosed with an addiction.

“The assumption has always been that if there is a group of kids that are at greatest risk of addiction, it is those living in poverty. Our data shows there is another group at great risk here,” says Suniya Luthar, lead author and ASU psychology professor. Luthar suspects pressure to excel at AP courses and extracurricular activities and get into a good college may drive some to self-medicate. While not all students in her study came from wealthy families, the schools were in affluent neighborhoods where access to disposable income makes it easier to purchase fade IDs, alcohol, and drugs.

Parents with high cognitive ability and socioeconomic status also tend to drink more themselves, thereby modeling a relaxed disposition regarding alcohol consumption as a means of reward or a way to unwind after a hard day. Some of these parents take a laissez-faire attitude when they catch their high-achiever child drinking alcohol. Luthar says, “People assume, ‘How bad can it be? She’s still on the honor roll.'”

We all have a basic need to receive positive regard from the important people in our lives (primarily our parents). Those who receive unconditional positive regard early in life are likely to develop unconditional self-regard. That is, they come to recognize their worth as a person, even while concluding that they are not perfect. Such people are in a great position to actualize their positive potential. Unfortunately, some children repeatedly are made to feel that they are not worthy of positive regard. As a result, they acquire conditions of worth; standards that tell them they are lovable and acceptable only when they conform to certain guidelines. Next comes acquiring a distorted view of themselves and their experiences.

Consider the song “Perfect” by Alanis Morissett:

Sometimes is never quite enough;
If you’re flawless, then you’ll win my love.
Don’t forget to win first place,
Don’t forget to keep that smile on your face.

Be a good boy,
Try a little harder,
You’ve got to measure up,
Make me prouder.

How long before you screw it up?
How many times do I have to tell you to hurry up?
With everything I do for you
The least you can do is keep quiet.

Be a good girl,
You’ve gotta try a little harder;
That simply wasn’t good enough
To make us proud.

I’ll live through you,
I’ll make you what I never was;
If you’re the best, then maybe so am I;
Compared to him compared to her,
I’m doing this for your own damn good,
You’ll make up for what I blew;
What’s the problem, why are you crying?

Be a good boy,
Push a little farther now,
That wasn’t fast enough
To make us happy;
We’ll love you just the way you are
If you’re perfect.

23% OF FULL-TIME COLLEGE STUDENTS ABUSE OR ARE DEPENDENT ON DRUGS AND ALCOHOL – THAT’S TWO AND A HALF TIMES THE NATIONAL AVERAGE.

Daily marijuana use is at its highest level among young adults of college age since the early 1980s, with 4.9% of college students reporting daily use, and 12.8% of non-college peers admitting to smoking pot every day. What’s wrong with a little pot smoking? you might ask. There has been a major movement toward legalization of medical marijuana, as well as recreational marijuana, giving the impression that opponents of marijuana are guilty of much ado about nothing. According to a September 2017 study, however, new research suggests that marijuana users may be more likely than non-users to misuse prescription opioids and develop prescription opioid use disorder. The study was conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, in conjunction with Columbia University.

Heavy alcohol use appears to be higher in college students than in non-college peers. Binge drinking (consuming five or more drinks in a row) is practiced by 32.4% of all college students, compared to 28.7 % among those in the same peer group who are not enrolled in college. 40.8% of college students report frequent intoxication (having been drunk) According to Nowinski (1990), a certain degree of rebelliousness develops in the adolescent. This seems to be linked to tension that exists between teens and authority, and reflects the underlying dynamic of individuation. This basic developmental process is the pathway that leads from childhood to adolescence. If it is successful, individuation ends in identity and autonomy. One key dynamic in individuation is the development of willpower. It is important to note that willpower without the ability to plan and delay gratification – this is what the Bible calls temperance or self-control – is dangerous; both are necessary, and teens who develop willpower without self-control are apt to be reckless and to get into trouble. This is especially true of substance abuse.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Substance abuse has fast become America’s number one health problem. Of primary concern is the opiate epidemic, including misuse and abuse of opioid painkillers, especially OxyContin and Fentanyl, and heroin. The substance abuse problem touches the life of every American child, family, congregation, community, and school, and is no respecter of socioeconomic status or culture. Interestingly, however, the opiate epidemic seems to be primarily hitting the category of white low and middle class males between the ages of 18 and 49. Geographic evaluation of the trend shows an initial explosion from within the Appalachian region. This seems to be due to the prevalence of occupations requiring hard labor, with frequent work-related injuries, and eventual economic collapse secondary to joblessness.

Given the tremendous negative impact of substance abuse, researchers, policy makers and practitioners look to identify factors that protect people from initiating the use of drugs, and help people who have become addicted to recover. A growing body of research suggests that religion is an important protective factor against substance use, and that religion may help people who are trying to recover from substance abuse by helping them find meaning, direction and purpose in life. Given the likely impact clergy can have on their congregation, they should pursue continuing education about the causes, consequences, risks and protective factors for substance abuse. Additionally, clergy and faith-based leaders should take a public stand against the use of drugs that is consistent with their personal and denominational beliefs and values.
I believe clergy and church leaders should identify and use congregation members with training, expertise, and experience in the area of addiction (e.g., social workers, addictions counselors, doctors, nurses, and people in recovery) to educate the congregation and create programs and ministries that address the problem. This is especially important for churches who also operate or are affiliated with a Christian-based school. It is advisable for churches to make space available for prevention activities, as well as for people affected by substance abuse (such as Celebrate Recovery).

 

REFERENCES

Community Commons. (October 27, 2016). “Mapping the Opioid Epidemic in the U.S.” [Web blog article.] Retrieved from: https://www.communitycommons.org/2016/10/mapping-the-opioid-epidemic-in-the-us/

Marshall, L. (October 2017). “Smart, Privileged, and At-Risk.” WebMD. 55.

NIH. (September 26, 2017). “Marijuana Use is Associated With an Increased Risk of Prescription Opioid Misuse and Use Disorders.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved from: https://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/news-releases/2017/09/marijuana-use-associated-increased-risk-prescription-opioid-misuse-use-disorders

Nowinski, J. (1990). Substance Abuse in Adolescents & Young Adults: A Guide to Treatment. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.

 

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