Is your teen at risk?

Drug use can lead to depressive illness and suicide. In this article, Prevent Delinquency founder Carl Bartol provides parentswith advice for drug-proofing your children.

Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among 15 to 24-year olds (U.S. Centers for Disease Control).  Research shows that over 90 percent of people who take their lives had depression or another diagnosable mental disorder. Of those, about half also abused drugs or alcohol.

Drug abuse can be the cause, or the consequence, of depression – or both, say mental health experts. Many kids turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate clinical depression or other mental disorders. “Substance abuse, while seeming to be an effective temporary solution, often makes anxiety and depressive symptoms much worse over time,” says Dr. Daniel G. Amen, a clinical neuroscientist, psychiatrist and author.

Ecstasy is a favorite among teens. “Many people with depression abuse ecstasy because, in the short run, it makes them feel better by aiding in the release of the neurotransmitter serotonin,” says Dr. Amen. “Unfortunately, it depletes serotonin stores in the brain and makes people more anxious, depressed and obsessive over time.”

Other teens with no pre-existing brain disorder can develop one from using drugs. Drugs and alcohol change the chemical balance in the brain, damage brain cells and decrease brain activity. This can cause or worsen depression and other disorders such as bi-bolar disorder, ADD, anxiety disorders including OCD, and schizophrenia.

Drug use also increases the likelihood of teens committing crimes. A recent study of adolescents detained for criminal offending found that 56 percent of boys and 40 percent of girls tested positive for drugs.
How can you protect your children from drugs and their sometimes fatal consequences? According to Carl Bartol, a youth prosecutor and founder of the Prevent Delinquency project, the most important thing you can do is spend time with your kids.

 “Listen to them. Create a loving, communicative environment where children can develop the self-confidence and strength to withstand destructive enticements. And monitor their activities. Be aware of where your children are at all times, who they are with, and what they are up to.”

Next, educate yourself. “It’s vital that parents understand the warning signs of drug use and what they can do to help. Even with the best intentions, many parents fail to adequately supervise and counsel their children, often because they aren’t fully aware of all the risks and threats their children face — until it is too late.

Signs of Drug Use

Behavior changes

  • Change in school attendance or grades
  • Change in sleeping patterns
  • Slowed thinking and reaction time
  • Extreme irritability or anger
  • Hyperactive states (hyper energy, talking fast, extreme restlessness), or unusual fatigue and listlessness
  • Depression or anxiety
  • New friends
  • Avoidance of family members at meals and other family gatherings
  • Secretive behavior and parental defiance outside the norm of typical adolescent development
  • Late night activities

Note: several of the changes listed could also indicate your teen suffers from a clinical depression or other mental disorder. Other common symptoms include frequent crying, social isolation, loss of interest in activities, poor concentration, low self-esteem and excessive guilt, extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure, frequent complaints of physical illnesses, thoughts or expressions of self-destructive behavior or suicide. If your teen exhibits some of these symptoms, make an urgent appointment with your family doctor. If your child is suicidal, take her to the nearest emergency ward.


The paraphernalia associated with drug experimentation has become quite sophisticated, says Bartol. “Many items used to secrete, smoke, snort or inject drugs can appear like common everyday items." These include:

  • Stash cans and bottles with false bottoms
  • Pipes that look like magic markers
  • Pens, lipstick, key chain flashlights and even batteries
  • Remnants of aluminum foil
  • Burnt bottle caps and spoons
  • Pieces of wax paper (decks) stamped with brand names or symbols in which heroin is sold
  • Plastic baggies used to store marijuana and cocaine
  • Small paper of tinfoil packets
  • Plastic bag corners and small twists of plastic wrap in which crack cocaine is sold

Financial signs

“Following the money trail is one of the best ways to determine if a child is experimenting with drugs,” says Mr. Bartol. “Illicit drugs are expensive and if your child is spending $100 on a Friday night, something is afoot. Studies have shown that unallocated money in a child’s pocket greatly increases their risk of engaging in substance abuse.”

For more resources that will help you educate yourself about drugs and signs to watch for, visit

Written by Judy Rushfeldt

 Carl A. Bartol has over 11 years experience as a youth prosecuting attorney in the state of New York, as well as working as a counselor in one of the nation's toughest maximum security facilities for youth, and a field investigator in the government and private sectors. Frustrated by the reactive approach of the youth justice system, he founded the non-profit PreventDelinquency project. provides resources for parents, teachers, counselors and law enforcement professionals about gangs, drugs, violence, sexual offences and other threats to children. Learn more at


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