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Updated 11 February 2013

Why do teens take drugs?

More teens are trying drugs than ever before. Why is this?

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R500 has gone missing from Mrs Johnson's purse. Surely it couldn't have been her lovely 14-year-old daughter? She was the only one home at the time. What could she want the money for? Mrs Johnson's about to find out.

Parents are seldom drug experts. But they should be. Almost three-quarters of the clients of the Cape Town Drug Counselling Centre started taking drugs in their teens. Many parents might have a drug addict in their home. In fact, they may be funding their kids' addiction.

Why teens take drugs
Drugs make you feel on top of the world. Grownup. In with the crowd. Cool. Hung over. Special. Underperforming. Confident. Like a rebel. In short, it does different things for different people. But seen from a teen's perspective, drugs can appear to have more advantages than disadvantages. Otherwise kids wouldn't be doing drugs.

"Despite what most people think, most kids don't start off taking drugs, because they want to get high – they are motivated by a variety of psychological factors rather than physical ones. They want to have fun, have friends and have the status of being a risk-taker. The danger is part of the appeal," says Grant Jardine, director of the Cape Town Drug Counselling Centre.

Among the many reasons for young people taking drugs, are:

  • Stress relief
  • To forget or escape problems
  • Being a rebel and a risk-taker
  • Relief of boredom/wanting to have fun
  • Escaping difficult decisions
  • A feeling of being special
  • Being part of a significant group of people
  • Being addicted
  • Curiosity

And a rehab programme that does not take these reasons for taking drugs into account, is bound to fail. People need to be taught new strategies to achieve these things, according to Jardine.

What's particularly worrying is that drug trends in South Africa are changing for the worse:

  • More teens are trying drugs than before;
  • The age at which teens are starting is decreasing;
  • The kinds of drugs teens are taking are more addictive

Why do teens seem to be more at risk than others?
One's teens can be a time of great changes, of agony mixed with ecstasy, a time of feeling awkward and insecure one moment and fabulous the next. Adolescence is a tricky and intense stop between childhood and adulthood in which a new identity has to be found, major decisions have to be made and great responsibilities have to be taken on.

"This is also a time when friends start replacing family as a social support mechanism as teens move towards greater individuality, " says Jardine. "For many teens, acceptance in this group is very important – and if taking drugs will make this acceptance happen, then so be it. Horror stories about addicts dying in gutters tend have little impact on teens and their drug habits. On the contrary."

Why scare tactics don't work on teens
The messages given are often that drugs kill, and while they undoubtedly sometimes do, most adolescents know of many casual drug users on whose lives this does not seem to have impacted seriously. This makes them discard the warning entirely.

But there are undoubtedly consequences to taking drugs, such as underperformance or financial problems or stunted emotional development. And these need to be pointed out, if any impact is to be made in discouraging drug use.

If you think you may have a drug or alcohol problem, it would make your life so much easier if you contacted one of the organisations below. Do it now.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated June 2010)

Contact information
Cape Town Drug Counselling Centre
(021) 447-8026

Narcotics Anonymous Helpline
Johannesburg – (011) 485-5248
Cape Town – 0881 – 3003-27

Alcoholics Anonymous
Johannesburg – (011) 436 - 0797
Cape Town - (021) 592 – 5047

 
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