Ecstasy by the Numbers: 869,000 New Users of an Impure Drug

By Richard Taite

Ecstasy.2According to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 16 million people have used ecstasy at some point in their life, and during the 2012 year, 869,000 people used ecstasy for the first time, far higher than the number of new LSD and PCP users combined. The number of new ecstasy users is also greater than the number of new users of cocaine, stimulants, and inhalants. The percentage of people who will use ecstasy sometime in their life is between 2 percent and 3.5 percent. The average age for first-time users was 20.3 years old, smack dab in the middle of the college years.

Ecstasy has been and remains primarily a college drug. Not only is it a college drug, it’s a college party drug. It is a hallucinogen, and users report increased energy and feelings of connectedness to others.

An article in the Suffolk Journal quotes a student, Steve, saying, “It’s everything. In your head, you’re happy with the position you’re in. Physically, things around you feel good, familiar. You feel what it is and enjoy it.”

Perfect for a party, right?

According to a fact sheet from The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention, ecstasy also creates short term effects including severe anxiety, paranoia, teeth clenching, and sweating. Longer term effects include impulsivity and damage to areas of the brain involved in thinking and memory. Additional dangers include the frequent combination of ecstasy with other drugs including heroin and methamphetamines, which can cause physical harm to long-term overall health.

In 2001, there were 76 deaths attributed to ecstasy use, most due to heatstroke associated with dancing to the point of dehydration and exhaustion. Additional deaths are attributed to hyponatremia—drinking too much water without accompanying salts, due to the fear of heatstroke while taking ecstasy.

The risks of the drug extend far past use of the drug itself. Ecstasy is commonly known as the “love drug” and consequences of this love drug include everything you might expect when young people have sex without the use of their best judgment, from unplanned pregnancies to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases to legal problems due to unclear consent. College-aged ecstasy users are more likely to have unprotected sex. This population also has a higher rate of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS and herpes. Finally, ecstasy use leads to a higher rate of unwanted sex, especially in young women who take the drug.

Additionally, the use of ecstasy increases suicide risk. Also quoted in the Suffolk Journal article, a student named Ryan says, “It gives you a feeling of euphoria for four or five hours, but then you feel like shit when it’s over. You feel depressed. You shouldn’t take it if you’re already depressed. You’ll just feel worse.” A study from the National Institutes of Health confirms this observation, finding almost double the risk for suicide in young adults that had used the drug in the past year and writing that, “Adolescent ecstasy users may require enhanced suicide prevention and intervention efforts.”

No matter its name—ecstasy, X, E, molly, or others like love drug, dancing shoes, skittles, or beansthe fact of the drug is that it is an unpredictable mix of lab chemicals produced in uncontrolled labs around the world, likely designed for stimulation and hallucination. With ecstasy, you simply don’t know what you’re getting and so you can’t predict its effect. Every time you take ecstasy is a roll of the dice. Is it really worth it?


Richard Taite is founder and CEO of Cliffside Malibu, offering evidence-based, individualized addiction treatment based on the Stages of Change model. He is also co-author with Constance Scharff of the book Ending Addiction for Good

Image via Flickr by Vix Walker

Study Shows Addicts are Lower in Mindfulness

By Richard Taite

Mindfulness.3Studies have shown the benefit of mindfulness training added to substance abuse treatment. Now a study from the National Institutes of Health shows that lack of mindfulness may be one of the causes of substance abuse, in the first place.

The study calls mindfulness, a “way of being that is focused on the present moment in a non-judgmental, non-reactive, compassionate manner.” The researchers looked for mindfulness in a population 107 adults in residential treatment for substance abuse. At the center, addicts filled out a 13-question survey called the Toronto Mindfulness Scale. Really, the scale looks at two components of mindfulness: decentering and curiosity. In decentering, a person can “step back” to observe their thoughts and feelings, rather than being absorbed by them. And in this case, curiosity isn’t just being generally curious about the world around you, but instead is a kind of curiousness about yourself – “the desire to know more about what you are experiencing,” the authors write.

Because the Toronto Mindfulness Scale has also been used to measure mindfulness in people not seeking treatment, the researchers could make an interesting comparison. For non-addicted people, the average score on the decentering part of the scale is 11.93; for people in residential treatment for addiction, it was 6.78. For non-addicted people, the average score on the curiosity side of the scale was 13.72; for people in residential treatment for addiction, it was 5.58.

Overall addicted people had about half the mindfulness as non-addicted people.

The authors point out that low mindfulness scores in addicts may mean that addicts, as a group, have lower tolerance for distressing experiences. “It is possible,” the authors write, “that the substance abuse group employed alcohol/drugs as a way to cope with, or to distance themselves from, distressing emotions and thoughts that they were over-identified with; in essence, substance use may be a form of coping with these distressing experiences.”

The study also suggests why mindfulness-based addiction treatment and mindfulness-based relapse prevention programs work. These programs teach non-judgmental acceptance of and curiosity about experiences that are naturally more positive and more negative. By doing so “each experience can be viewed… as something to be explored and understood, rather than something to be removed or pushed away.”

Of course, the way many addicts “push away” these experiences that currently overwhelm them is through using their substance of choice.

Interestingly, this article supports the idea of treating co-occurring and underlying issues along with addiction. In other words, just as depression and anxiety can cause and reinforce addiction, so too can lack of mindfulness be seen as a “condition” that leads to addiction. By treating anxiety or depression along with addiction, innovative treatment centers are improving recovery rates. And now it seems as if low mindfulness can be added to this list of issues for which directed treatment should be provided. By helping addicts discover the curiosity and decentering of mindfulness, we can treat this condition of low mindfulness that underlies addiction.


Richard Taite is founder and CEO of Cliffside Malibu, offering evidence-based, individualized addiction treatment based on the Stages of Change model. He is also co-author with Constance Scharff of the book Ending Addiction for Good.

Image: Flickr/Mindfulness cc license

Robin Williams: A Devastating Loss

By Richard Taite

robin-williams-300x199In Patch Adams, he made me cry. In Mork and Mindy, he made me laugh. In Good Will Hunting he made me believe. In absolutely everything he ever did, Robin Williams was a wizard and a trickster and about four steps ahead and beyond everyone else on the screen. I am personally devastated by his loss. Especially when it was so preventable.

Reports suggest that Mr. Williams was in rehab in early July. As is often the case with individuals who have been in recovery for a long time and then relapse, accidental overdose and suicide are major risks. Mr. Williams needed more support than he got and tragically, the world has yet again lost a brilliant actor and comedian.

Addiction treatment and all co-occurring disorders such as clinical depression deserve the latest, best treatment available in 2014. Why did Mr. Williams check himself into a 1980s-style, 12-step, bare-bones rehab? Was it just because of name recognition?

The thing is, depression and brilliance and addiction can so often be part of the same package. When they are, it becomes a skilled dance to disentangle the aspects of brilliance that a person wants to keep from the depression and addiction that will almost inevitably pull that shining light down too soon. These are not 1980s skills. This is the cutting edge of today’s addiction treatment.

You can’t treat addiction without treating the underlying mental health conditions that cause it. All the evidence points to the same thing; you have to treat co-occurring psychiatric disorders, such as depression, at the same time as you treat addiction. Failure is almost inevitable if this treatment is not simultaneous. The same is true of anxiety or PTSD. These things can’t be compartmentalized because if you leave one, the others grow.


Richard Taite is founder and CEO of Cliffside Malibu, offering evidence-based, individualized addiction treatment based on the Stages of Change model. He is also co-author with Constance Scharff of the book Ending Addiction for Good.

Study Shows 4 Reasons for Increased Suicide Risk in Addicts

By Richard Taite
Suicide risk in addicts shows necessity of treating underlying causes. Image: Flickr/DarcyAdelaide cc license

Suicide risk in addicts shows necessity of treating underlying causes. Image: Flickr/DarcyAdelaide cc license

Substance abuse doesn’t sit in a neat little package, tied up with a bow, waiting for treatment. Instead, imagine this little box…with octopus tentacles coming out of it. That’s addiction: it may start as overuse of a substance, but then it spreads to all areas of an addict’s life – family, career, and the way an addict sees him- or herself in the world. One area to which addiction spreads is the addict’s concept of self-worth. As we’ve known (and as you probably could have guessed), addiction increases suicide risk.

An article just published in the Journal of Affective Disorders looks inside this overall risk to discover what it is, exactly, inside addiction that puts people at risk for suicide. The study interviewed patients at a drug abuse treatment center and found that 68 percent of patients had major depressive disorder; 28 percent had attempted suicide within the last year. Here are the characteristics that predicted which patients had attempted suicide:

1. Alcohol/Marijuana as First-Used Drugs

Patients who dove into heroin or methamphetamines were less likely to be suicidal than patients who had started with alcohol or marijuana. Also, suicide risk was highest when people who started with alcohol moved to marijuana and when people who started with marijuana moved on to cocaine. The researchers suggest that perhaps people who start with alcohol or marijuana may also be most likely to use these substances (as opposed to others) in the attempt to self-medicate for depression, or as a result of depression, and that it is this association with depression and not characteristics alcohol/marijuana themselves that push suicide risk past that of other drugs.

2. Depression Before Addiction

Depression is a risk factor for substance abuse. When depression comes first, addiction also comes with increased suicide risk. When substance abuse acts like a symptom of depression, it is essential to treat the underlying cause of depression along with the addiction.

3. Suicide Before Addiction

This finding is fairly intuitive: patients who had attempted suicide before becoming addicted were also more likely to attempt suicide during addiction.

4. Family Drug Abuse History

Addicts who came from families that included addicts were at higher risk for depression and for suicide attempts. But why? Is it because growing up in an environment that included an addicted family member might not have provided the kindest childhoods for patients in the study? Or is it due to a genetic component of addiction and/or depression in which an addicted family member meant that patients in this study were more likely to have genes that predispose them to addiction and depression, and thus suicide?

All these factors taken together seem to mean that a person’s history before becoming addicted is as important as the addiction itself in predicting major depression and suicide attempts. This underscores the need to treat depression and other conditions along with addiction – addiction may be one of many symptoms of an underlying condition. Addiction certainly doesn’t help a person prone to depression avoid suicide attempts, but treating the addiction by itself may leave tentacles of depression or other co-occurring conditions – these tentacles may be the factors putting addicts most at risk for suicide.


Richard Taite is founder and CEO of Cliffside Malibu, offering evidence-based, individualized addiction treatment based on the Stages of Change model. He is also co-author with Constance Scharff of the book Ending Addiction for Good.

Mindfulness with CBT May Rewire the Brain Sensitized by Addiction

By Richard Taite

One secret to addiction recovery may be rewiring the brain. Image: Flickr/Geekr cc license.

Why do addicts seek their drug? Why can’t they stop? The 21st century view is that an addict’s brain becomes literally hardwired to crave the drug. It’s called “incentive-sensitization” – the theory has been around since 1993 and was made mainstream by an article in the journal Addictionin 2000. Basically, the incentive-sensitization view of addiction says that drugs tip the scale of how our brains calculate incentives: drugs rewire the brain so that the drug is the brain’s only reward and thus its only motivation.

Now, a new article published online last week in the journal Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews shows that it’s not just addictive substance, but addictive behaviors as well that can rewire the brain in this way. Not just what you consume but what you experience can make your brain crave the experience in the same way it can be taught to crave a drug.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about whether or not food addiction is real and here’s another piece of evidence that it very well may be: behavioral addictions like gambling, food, sex and others can change your brain, making it hypersensitive to the rewards of these behaviors. For a person addicted to food, chocolate cake acts like heroin in the brain: the brain considers food its only reward and its only motivation, and so seeks food and can’t stop seeking it, even at great consequence to health and wellbeing.

Not only do substance addictions and behavioral addictions make addicts more sensitive to the rewards of their addiction, they make addicts less sensitive to natural rewardslike love or safety or belonging. An addict wants their addiction and nothing else can provide the same fix – it’s true of heroin and it’s likely also true of gambling, sex and food. And check out this powerful point: in the brains of addicts, seeking a substance or a behavior has everything to do with “wanting” and nothing to do with “liking.” You may not even like the thing you’re addicted to…but still, you want it.

Seeing behavioral addictions through the lens of incentive-sensitization can help us treat these addictions. The article points out that if addictive behaviors are written in the brain, the challenge is to rewrite the brain in a way that erases these patterns of behavior. The article points out that treatments with therapeutic drugs can mask the brain’s addictive desires, but don’t tend to lead to the long-term fix of new patterns in the brain. Instead, the authors write that cognitive behavioral therapy can, “increase awareness of cues that trigger craving and teach skills that enable new patterns of thinking and acting.”

Unfortunately, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) depends on these cues and cravings being conscious. What about all the unconscious cravings? The article recommends mindfulness-based interventions, which “can potentially target unconscious ‘wanting’ mechanisms by increasing awareness of bodily and emotional signals.”

And so if addiction – substance or behavioral – depends on “incentive sensitization,” the solution may be to make these cravings conscious with mindfulness and deprogram them with cognitive-behavioral therapy. If addiction is written into the brain’s system of incentives and motivations, the secret to addiction recovery may be to rewrite or at least rebalance this system.


Richard Taite is founder and CEO of Cliffside Malibu, offering evidence-based, individualized addiction treatment based on the Stages of Change model. He is also co-author with Constance Scharff of the book Ending Addiction for Good.

Children Who Experience Family Members’ Trauma at Twice the Risk for Substance Abuse as Adults

By Richard Taite

AbuseWe know the effects of childhood traumas like abuse and neglect on later substance abuse. But what impact does second hand trauma have? A study published in the August issue of the journal Addiction shows that when a child under age 15 is exposed to a family member’s trauma (e.g. a parent or sibling being the victim of violent assault or a parent’s cancer diagnosis), that child has approximately twice the risk of struggling with drug and alcohol problems 6 years later.

Continue reading… »

Opioid Drug Deaths Cost Half a Million Years of Life in the U.S. Each Year

By Richard Taite

PillsIn 1991, the band Nirvana released the classic album Nevermind and Kurt Cobain was the face of the grunge scene that spread from Seattle across the United States. If you’re old enough, remember back: it was a gritty time that seemed defined by self-destructive heroin use. A new study on early view at the journal Addiction shows that, at least in terms of opioid-related deaths, 1991 was nothing compared to today. Between 1991 and 2010, opioid-related deaths increased 242 percent. Today, deaths related to opioid use account for one out of every eight deaths of people 25-34 years old.

The report, which uses coroner data from Ontario, Canada, blames the rise not on heroin itself, but on prescription opioid pain medications. The medical use of prescription painkillers is up; the recreational use of these same prescription painkillers is up; and deaths due to opioid use are up alongside use – from 127 deaths per year in 1992 to 550 deaths per year in 2010.

Interestingly, the study didn’t leave its description of the impact of opioids at the level of deaths alone. Inside this number is a statistic called years of life lost. If average life expectancy is 80 years and a person dies of an overdose at age 75, that person would have lost 5 years of life. If a person dies in the same way at age 30, that person would have lost 50 years of life. Because opioids tended to kill younger people (median age 42), not only is the overall number of deaths high, but the years of life lost to drugs is staggering.

Overall, the study found that opioid drug deaths cost the people of Ontario, Canada 21,927 years of life in 2010. These years lost were greater than the years of life lost to alcohol use (18,465 years of life lost). In fact, the years of life lost to opioids were greater than those lost to pneumonia, HIV/AIDS, or influenza.

The authors point out that if you extrapolate the data to the population of the United States, “where rates of opioid use, misuse and death are comparable to those in Canada,” the drugs would result in more than half a million years of life lost per year.

These drugs kill young people, taking not only lives but, tragically, many years of life with each death. The study writes, “The finding that one in eight deaths among young adults were attributable to opioids underlines the urgent need for a change in perception regarding the safety of these medications.”


Richard Taite is founder and CEO of Cliffside Malibu, offering evidence-based, individualized addiction treatment based on the Stages of Change model. He is also co-author with Constance Scharff of the book Ending Addiction for Good.

Does Food Addiction Really Exist?

By Richard Taite

Donuts.2When people use heroin, their brains become physiologically dependent on the drug and the behavioral patterns of use become written alongside this need. That’s addiction: both behaviorally and biologically, heroin addicts need the drug. When they don’t get it, they crave it, even though they may no longer like it and know the drug is bad for them. If the drug is withheld long enough, the addict experiences symptoms of withdrawal.

Now, an important review of food addiction in the Journal of Nutrition points out many parallels between heroin and food. First, drugs and food make us feel good in the same ways – we tend to think about drug addiction first and then wonder how food addiction might be like it, but, really, drugs take over reward pathways in the brain that were originally built for food. The high you get from a drug takes over a system in your brain that, way back in evolutionary time, made you leave your cave to look for vittles. And cravings for drugs are extreme versions of the feelings of hunger and satisfaction that come from eating.

Here’s a little more about how it works: As you probably know, drugs like cocaine create dopamine release in the brain – the longer you use the drug, the less sensitive your brain is to it, and so the more cocaine you need to create dopamine release. The same dopamine desensitization is true in obese people – food creates dopamine release in the brain, but people who chronically overeat require more and more food to create the same “good feeling” of dopamine release.

There’s another critical point in the definition of drug addiction: addicts continue to crave the substance long after they report liking it. With food, most of the foods “addicted” people crave are also foods they like…and continue to like. People who consider themselves food addicts are more likely to crave cake than cucumbers. But there are some exceptions: a study that put people on a bland, vanilla food replacement shake found that in the week after the study ended, some people reported craving the shake even though they also said they didn’t like it – making people accustomed to the “drug” and then taking it away produced cravings even when, like heroin for most long-term addicts, they no longer liked the drug.

So, according to the Journal of Nutrition review, here’s what we know: “Two of the criteria mentioned in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders are tolerance and withdrawal and there is evidence for food withdrawal and tolerance.”

Another important criteria for addiction is consequences; part of the definition of drug or alcohol addiction is the negative consequences of this addiction. What are the negative consequences of food? The review points out a critical distinction: for healthy, normal-weight people, the consequences of food are generally positive; for obese people or people who control weight through unhealthy means like bulimia, the consequences of food can be negative, up to and including early death, just as with drug addiction.

“Just as some individuals can drink alcohol responsibly and others cannot, there are individual differences in reactions to food (due to genetic predisposition or to prior experience) and some people can consume food in moderation more easily than others,” the review writes.

In other words, food may be just like alcohol; for people who are addicted, the substances are “addictive”; for people who are not addicted, because the substances don’t really do harm, they are not “addictive”.

So you want to know if food is addictive? Here’s what the review says: “overweight or obese individuals probably do meet the clinical criterion for food addiction, [for example] persistent desire or repeated unsuccessful attempts to quit; important social, occupational, or recreational activities given up or reduced; continued use despite knowledge of adverse consequences.”

If you crave food even past liking it, become desensitized to consumption so that you need more and more to get the same good feeling, and are past a tipping point at which eating has the potential to do real harm, you very well may be addicted to food.


Richard Taite is founder and CEO of Cliffside Malibu, offering evidence-based, individualized addiction treatment based on the Stages of Change model. He is also co-author with Constance Scharff of the book Ending Addiction for Good.

People on Autism Spectrum at Increased Risk for Substance Abuse

By Richard Taite

Booze.SplashGenerally, people on the autism spectrum tend to be personally cautious and socially withdrawn. As you would expect, previous research shows that people with autism tend to have low rates of substance abuse – the preference for low risk and avoidance of social situations means less drinking or drug use. But new research from the Washington University School of Medicine found the opposite: in their study of 3,080 Australian twins, people with symptoms of autism were more likely than people without symptoms to abuse alcohol and marijuana. The interesting reason why and perhaps implications for protecting both autistic people and those who happen to be socially withdrawn are inside their fascinating research.

First, people on the autism spectrum are a tricky group to study – because the spectrum includes many people with mild symptoms like those of Asperger’s syndrome, the less extreme side of the spectrum which may go undiagnosed. And so instead of studying people formally diagnosed with autism, in this case the researchers asked people about their symptoms that tend to be related to autism. How would alcohol and marijuana use correlate with symptoms like social-interaction difficulties, communication challenges and a tendency to engage in repetitive behaviors?

Interestingly, what they found is that people with autistic traits were no more likely to drink or use marijuana than people without these traits, but that people with autistic traits who drank or smoked pot were more likely to become addicted to or otherwise abuse these substances

In their study, just under 20 percent of twins without autistic traits met the criteria for alcoholism. But of people with autistic traits, 35 percent were alcohol-dependent. With marijuana, 23 percent of the controls had used marijuana more than 10 times in their lives, compared with 39 percent of people with six or more autistic symptoms.

In a press release accompanying the research, Duneesha De Alwis, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychiatry, wrote, “People with autistic traits can be socially withdrawn, so drinking with peers is less likely. But if they do start drinking, even alone, they tend to repeat that behavior, which puts them at increased risk for alcohol dependence.”

But what about previous findings that people with autism are protected from substance abuse? The answer, according to the researchers, is the difference between symptoms and diagnosis. Think about it: a diagnosis is likely to accompany a more extreme form of the disorder. And it seems from this research as if a more extreme form of the disorder may keep autistic people from even experimenting with substances.

But then at the level of individual symptoms or even clusters of symptoms, “It could be that some traits related to autism are protective, while others elevate the risk for alcohol and substance-abuse problems,” says Arpana Agrawal, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at the university.

If autism itself is protective, autistic tendencies may be a risk factor for substance abuse. Which autistic symptoms increase the risk? Are people with only one or two autistic tendencies at higher risk or are there tipping points on the spectrum that increase and then decrease risk? Agarwal, De Alwis and colleagues are asking these questions in further research. For the time being, I would love to hear your experience with autism, symptoms that could be considered autistic, and substance abuse. What’s your take on the intersection of these challenges?


Richard Taite is founder and CEO of Cliffside Malibu, offering evidence-based, individualized addiction treatment based on the Stages of Change model. He is also co-author with Constance Scharff of the book Ending Addiction for Good.

5 Reasons Substance Abuse is Even More Dangerous for Young People

By Richard Taite

We all have secrets.
When you are young, you shape your possibilities. Research in psychology and neuroscience shows us that your personality and your intelligence develop during childhood and teenage years until becoming fully developed by age 25. Likewise, during your younger years, you write the story you tell about yourself – who are you, how do you understand your worth and your potential? Then you live this story through your adult life. In other words, the person you shape while growing up can be the person you’re stuck with. So allowing drugs or alcohol to influence this young person can affect not just who you are today, but who you can be and will become. Here are five reasons why substance abuse is especially dangerous for young people.

1. Damage to the Developing Brain

The brain you are born with is not necessarily the same brain you bring into adulthood. Between these two events – birth and about age 25 – your brain is developing to meet the needs of your environment. How you are parented, intellectual challenges, your nutrition and many more things influence how parts of your brain develop during this time. Substances of abuse can change or stop this development.

A review in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research collects what we know about how, exactly, alcohol influences the developing brain. The review writes that brain areas “actively developing during adolescence include the prefrontal cortex, limbic system areas, and white matter myelin. These areas serving cognitive, behavioral, and emotional regulation may be particularly vulnerable to adverse alcohol effects.”

Specifically, the prefrontal cortex controls complex decision-making and the “executive function” activities of reasoning, planning and willpower; the limbic system controls emotion, motivation and emotional learning; and white matter myelin is the coating of insulation that allows electrical signals to travel efficiently throughout the brain (and which breaks down in Alzheimer’s disease). Together, impacts on the development of these systems can lead to impulsivity, sensation-seeking and slower cognitive function.

2. Risk of Addiction

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, people who start drinking before age 15 are five times more likely to develop alcohol abuse and dependence than people who start after age 21. Part of this, again, is due to the structure and function of the adolescent brain. Basically, the teen brain craves new experiences. It is wired to be impulsive. For most people, this is a transitional period – you are impulsive in your youth and then learn moderation as you age. Of course, impulsivity makes teenagers more likely to experiment with substances of abuse. And, unfortunately, as this article in the American Journal of Psychiatry shows, teens who abuse substances can get stuck in this developmental period of impulsivity. When a young person uses drugs or alcohol, it can embalm him or her in a state of readiness for more drugs and alcohol. The younger you start using, the more serious the problem is likely to become (and the more likely the problem will become serious).

3. Long-Term Health Risk

Here’s the obvious part: the longer you subject your body to substances of abuse, the more likely you are to eventually experience health consequences like cardiovascular disease, dementia and even cancer. The earlier you start, the more years you have available for substance abuse, and the more likely these substances are to eventually start “breaking down” the body systems they affect. But in addition to this traditional view of accumulated risk, new evidence shows that substances may be more harmful to young bodies than to developed bodies. Basically, young bodies aren’t ready to handle the challenge of substances. For example, this study shows that younger people who drink heavily are even more likely than older people who drink similar amounts for similar durations to experience cirrhosis of the liver.

4. Behavioral Health Risk

Health risks associated with teen and young-adult substance use aren’t limited to the direct effects of the substances themselves. Risk also comes from the behaviors of young people who use substances. According to the NCADD fact sheet Facts About Underage Drinking (paid download here), “Each year, approximately 5,000 young people under the age of 21 die as a result of underage drinking.  This includes about 1,900 deaths from motor vehicle crashes, 1,600 as a result of homicides, 300 from suicide, and hundreds from other injuries such as falls, burns, and drownings. And, approximately 600,000 college students are unintentionally injured while under the influence of alcohol.  Approximately 700,000 students are assaulted by other students who have been drinking and about 100,000 students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.”

Substances are dangerous. They can also make you dangerous to yourself or to others.

5. Social Development

Just as physical development is in overdrive during teenage and young adult years, social development is in high gear as well. According to the psychologist Erik Erikson, the primary developmental challenge of young adulthood is to resolve the conflict of intimacy versus isolation – can you give away some independence to form a close relationship with a partner? Erikson saw the ability to form these bonds as essential to the path of human development that leads later to productivity in middle age and integrity as an older person. As long as substance abuse blocks the potential for intimacy, a young person will remain stuck in their personal and social development. Similar is true of career; what you do as a young person defines much of your potential later in life.

The foundation for successful relationships and careers is laid during young adulthood. And these two social stepping-stones in turn lay the foundation for wellbeing in later life. If this critical period is instead spent with substances of abuse, young people can miss these important milestones in their social development.

In young adulthood, life paths diverge – some paths point toward wellbeing, intimacy, security and success; others point toward struggle, declining health, and isolation. Substance abuse at any age can be devastating to mind, body and spirit, but especially when young, addiction or dependence can define the direction of your future life path. Which path will you choose? The choices you make when young can help define who you will be for the rest of your life.


Richard Taite is founder and CEO of Cliffside Malibu, offering evidence-based, individualized addiction treatment based on the Stages of Change model. He is also coauthor with Dr. Constance Scharff of the book Ending Addiction for Good.

Image: martinak15 via Compfight


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